CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina coach Roy Williams referenced the time of year it is on Saturday night and, given the season, he said, "I'm not going to be Scrooge." But then, the more he spoke about his team's 97-82 victory here at the Smith Center against Appalachian State, the more curmudgeonly he became.
The No. 5 Tar Heels (9-2) had practiced just once in the past week while players focused on exams. They hadn't played a game in seven days. Given the time off, and the time away from practice, Williams liked certain aspects of how his team played.
Other aspects, well, put him in the mood of the old miser he referenced at the start of his postgame press conference.
"We were really good for about the last four minutes of the first half and the first four or five minutes of the second half," Williams said. "And then we went brain dead there for a while."
After building a 12-point lead in the first half, the Tar Heels allowed Appalachian State (4-6) to make a game of it. The Mountaineers used a 15-7 run to make it a four-point game with 4:32 to play before halftime.
Then came one of the stretches that Williams appreciated. The Tar Heels closed the half on a 14-2 run that gave them a 48-32 lead at halftime.
UNC continued the run to start the second half, and eventually built a 29-point lead with 10:15 to play. Tyler Zeller, the senior forward, led UNC with 31 points - 20 of which came in the first half. Zeller, who also had 10 rebounds, finished one point short of tying his career high.
"I was very thankful to have finals over with so I could play basketball," Zeller said. "I mean, it's something that we're young enough that it shouldn't be any rust. Finals are tough. They're exhausting. But we're here to play basketball, so you've got to be able to do that."
John Henson added 17 points and 10 rebounds for UNC and P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock finished with 10 points apiece. The Tar Heels dominated on the interior, where they outscored the Mountaineers 54-24 in the paint.
Still, it wasn't as clean of a victory as Williams would have preferred. After falling behind by 29, Appalachian State outscored the Tar Heels by 14 the rest of the way.
"Someone said our biggest lead was 29 and then it was 15 or something like that," Williams said. "And that happened in a stretch where Kendall (Marshall) pushes off, throws a pass around behind his back, tries to throw it between 21,750 people. No, 20,892 was all that was here tonight."
The game represented a homecoming for Appalachian coach Jason Capel, who played at UNC from 1998 through 2002. Capel hadn't been back for a game at the Smith Center since 2002 and afterward he said, "It was good to come home."
He liked the way his team fought back - both in the first half and in the second, when the game was out of reach.
"I'm proud because we competed," Capel said. "We didn't just play hard. We competed."
Capel, who during his years at UNC played for Bill Guthridge and Matt Doherty, said he was nervous before the game but that once it began he focused on the task at hand. He said he shared a moment with Williams before the game, and then the two spoke briefly afterward.
"I told him nice job and good luck to him," Williams said. "And all coaches say that to the other coach but most of the time they don't mean it. And I told him I meant it."