UNC looked like an unstoppable team in the first half against Tennessee in the first ACC/SEC Challenge Wednesday night in Chapel Hill. Unfortunately, the second half was less unstoppable, more heart-stopping for Tar Heel fans, but Carolina survived a second-half onslaught from the Volunteers to pick up the 100-92 win.
The first half was one of the finest halves of basketball I can remember seeing the Heels play. Everyone looked cohesive and the ball moved with ease — it didn’t hurt that the ball was also going in the basket repeatedly. Carolina shot 58% for the half and scored 61 points, just ten shy of the most Tennessee had allowed in a game all year. The 61-39 halftime lead was extremely fun, but the Volunteers’ shooting percentage should have been a canary in the coal mine. Despite their diminutive point total in comparison, Rick Barnes’ squad shot 53%. The worry was that some of those shots would start to fall, and they did.
UNC has been tormented by one player lighting them up in their last two games, and this game would be no different. Dalton Knecht scored a career-high 37 points before leaving late in the second half after he rolled his ankle stepping on Seth Trimble’s foot. He tried to put pressure on the ankle to finish out the game but couldn’t work through it.
The fact that the game got so close down the stretch was not helped by the fact that the Tar Heels didn’t have a field goal for nearly the final seven minutes of the game. Some of that was because Tennessee was forced to foul and try to extend the game, but it also was because of poor shot selection and taking the air out of the ball.
Despite the game turning into a bit of a nail-biter as the once-24-point lead got smaller and smaller, Carolina never trailed in the game against a team that had KenPom’s top rated defense. We’ve seen the player going off bury the team before, but this team fought back and did enough to protect the win.
Three players finished with 20 points or more: RJ Davis with 27, Armando Bacot with 22, and Harrison Ingram with 20. Freshman point guard Elliot Cadeau had a brilliant facilitating game with ten assists and zero turnovers. Cormac Ryan returned after missing the last game with a bad ankle to score 15 points before ultimately fouling out.
The Tar Heels scored 21 points off Tennessee turnovers, of which 20 came in the first half. That was really what allowed them to get out to such a substantial lead. A lot of the credit for that goes to Tennessee themselves, as they only turned the ball over three times after halftime. The free throw line was also kind to the Heels with 32 points coming at the line. The Volunteers made it to the charity stripe just 16 times in the game.
A lot can be said about how the overall vibe of this team just feels better than last year, but it seems reasonable to say that this is absolutely a game that would have turned into a loss last year. This team has shown a toughness that just seemed to be missing and it’s such a welcome switch. It’s really fun to watch them work together as a unit and work through adversity. It’s not perfect, of course, and the second half made it clear there’s plenty to work on, but the first half also showed us that they can absolutely compete with good teams.
Carolina is back in action on Saturday in their first ACC action of the year against Florida State.