After a long time waiting, the hardwood Tar Heels are finally back, and they opened the season with a win that, while maybe tougher than expected, showed a ton of promise for the season ahead. After an almost evenly fought first 30 minutes between UNC and the Radford Highlanders, the Heels pulled away from Radford and won their first game of the year, 86-70.
The game was an offensive explosion to start, with the Heels hitting 7 of their first 9 shots and Radford answering by making 4 of their first 6, which led to an early 17-10 lead for the home team. This included makes from behind the arc for Harrison Ingram and Paxson Wojcik for their respective first points as Tar Heels, as well as 6 early points for Armando Bacot. While the starting unit looked comfortable and well-set, things got sloppy for UNC once some subs came in: first off the bench were freshmen Elliot Cadeau and Zayden High, quickly followed by Jalen Washington and Seth Trimble, and later Jae’Lyn Withers. While all of them had some individual highlights, the team’s cohesion was off, leading to several live-ball turnovers that generated easy points on the other end for the Highlanders — at least three separate times, this was the result of Elliot Cadeau trying transition hit-ahead passes that either his teammates weren’t ready for or that just shouldn’t have been thrown. That, combined with visitors continuing to hit tough jumpers in halfcourt, led to two separate short runs ending in Radford taking a three-point lead with the first half winding down. The Heels’ starting unit came back in to close the half and went on an 8-0 spurt themselves, ending the half having regained a lead of 5-points.
The story was more of the same to open the second half; the two teams continued to trade baskets as seemingly neither could string together consecutive stops to substantially change the margin. Armando Bacot, who led the Heels in first-half scoring with 13 points, picked up right where he left off after halftime, with 6 of UNC’s first 10 second-half points. Finally, the Heels were able to string together some stops, thanks to some renewed defensive energy and some regression to the mean on some less-than-contested Radford jumpers, and built the lead out to 8. A few plays later, the Heels put together maybe their most impressive sequence of the game — a series of passes all over the court including two ball reversals between Harrison Ingram and Cormac Ryan that ended in Ryan catching the ball in the corner, getting his man to fly by as he relocated, and banging in a three-pointer for a 13-point lead that felt like the beginning of the end of the game with seven minutes to go. Indeed, 13 was as close as Radford would get for the rest of the game, before a couple of late buckets on the home side got the game to its final margin.
Armando Bacot lived up to his preseason accolades, leading his team in scoring and rebounding with 25 and 13 on 10/16 shooting. His long-time partner in crime, R.J. Davis, struggled from the floor but ran the offense effectively, finishing with 13 points. And the team around them looked a lot more cohesive than it did most of the time a season ago, most exemplified by their 18 assists on 32 made baskets.
The biggest story of the game for UNC, though, was probably its newcomers. Three of them started alongside Bacot and Davis — Harrison Ingram, Cormac Ryan, and Paxson Wojcik. All three had moments of brilliance, including the aforementioned three from Ryan, but Ingram was probably the most notable. He was all over the floor, especially in the second half, and finished with 12 points on 4/9 shooting (2/5 from three), 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocked shots. Ryan had 13 points, shooting almost exclusively from beyond the arc and at the free-throw line (3/7 and 4/4, respectively), and Wojcik played his part with 5 points and 3 assists in 20 minutes. Joining them in making an immediate impression was freshman point guard Elliot Cadeau, who led the team in assists with 6 despite only playing 19 minutes — and some of them were absolute dimes. He also flashed what he can do on the offensive end with a couple of lightning-quick drives and swoon-worthy ballhandling moments, despite the shooting touch not having come with him just yet as he made just 2 of his 6 field goal attempts and just 1 of his 3 free throws.
The Heels will be back in action at the Dean Dome on Sunday, when they’ll host the Mountain Hawks of Lehigh.