North Carolina didn’t leave the Bahamas with a trophy or with a championship – two things it had hoped to do when it arrived this week – but the Tar Heels left with lessons that should prove beneficial in January, in ACC play, and in the postseason in March.
That was the hope, anyway, after UNC finished play in the Battle 4 Atlantis with a 75-64 victory Friday night against No. 18 Florida in a consolation game inside the Imperial Arena. The Tar Heels (5-1) ended their trip with a victory – just not the championship victory they envisioned.
Nonetheless, it came with another lesson – like the one in toughness UNC learned in defeat against Butler, and like the one in resiliency the Tar Heels learned in coming back from that loss with a victory Thursday against No. 22 UCLA. The lesson Florida (3-3) provided Friday? A clinic in how to handle the press.
Or, rather, how not to handle it. No. 5 UNC scored the first 12 points Friday night while the Gators missed their first 10 shots from the field. Then, though, the Tar Heels simply held on – though it often wasn’t all that pretty.
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Florida’s press took the ball out of UNC’s best ball handlers, and sometimes that meant that Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, the starting forwards, advanced possessions past midcourt. The scene was comical, at times, and at least once Marcus Paige, a junior guard, cracked a slight smile while Meeks dribbled his way down the court.
“They did a great job of denying point guards the ball,” said Paige, who finished with 16 points – nine of them coming at the free-throw line. “When Nate (Britt) was the one and I was the one, they denied us the ball pretty well, and we had Brice and Kennedy dribble up the court a couple times.
“But at the same time, we did just enough to keep them around that nine- to 10-point deficit, to where we were still comfortable.”
UNC coach Roy Williams might not have been all that comfortable. Though there was hardly the level of discomfort he experienced watching what happened to his team Wednesday against Butler, which outhustled the Tar Heels and, often, pushed them around and out of the way in pursuit of loose balls.
“We feel better than we did after the first night, there’s no question about that,” Williams said. “I thought at times we moved the ball effectively and at times it looked we had never worked on press offense. And we’ve been really a good press offense team for years and years and years and years.”
Not on this night, though. UNC finished with 19 turnovers, which led to 24 Florida points.
The night before, against UCLA, had been the opposite for the Tar Heels. They forced 23 turnovers, which led to 31 points, and that enabled UNC to put the game out of reach midway through the second half.
Florida’s press allowed the Gators to hang around after their miserable start. The Tar Heels held leads of 12-0, 20-4 and 36-18. All the while, the Gators, who have struggled amid injuries to key players, clanked shot after perimeter shot off the rim.
By halftime, UNC led 39-23, but Florida didn’t quit. The Gators cut the Tar Heels’ lead to eight points with about 13 minutes to play and to eight points again one minute later. But that’s as close as they came until the in the final minutes, when Florida trimmed UNC’s lead to seven.
After the first five or so minutes, UNC often labored offensively against that press. When it did manage to beat it, though, and retain possession, the Tar Heels found success on the interior, where sophomore forward Meeks made the most of his opportunities.
Meeks, who made eight of his 12 shots from the field, finished with 18 points and tied his career-high with 13 rebounds. The Tar Heels outscored Florida 32-22 in the paint. Meeks credited some of his success, he said, to “just having the will to want the ball.”
The Tar Heels’ will was in question after that Butler loss. Some players returned to their hotel rooms that afternoon and listened to television commentators say the same thing Williams had told them: that they played soft.
UNC played with some grit Thursday against UCLA, and the energy seemed to carry over Friday. And so the Tar Heels left victorious, just not quite as victories as they’d hoped. Not that the trip didn’t lack for benefits, and lessons. Williams spoke of what his team had learned in defeat, and then what it learned playing against a quicker UCLA team Thursday.
“The biggest thing to take is we were exposed to so many different things,” he said. “I think that will help us.”