So much for the nonconference part of North Carolina’s men’s basketball schedule.
The ACC marathon, as coach Roy Williams called it Monday, is about to begin.
The seventh-ranked Tar Heels will open conference play Wednesday, hosting the Clemson Tigers, and will do it off a 96-63 victory over UNC Greensboro at the Smith Center.
The only real suspense about Monday was whether Marcus Paige and Kennedy Meeks would play. Paige jammed an ankle last week against Appalachian State in the Tar Heels’ last game before the Christmas break, and Meeks has been out with a bruised knee.
Paige did play, scoring 14 points, although Williams limited him to 21 minutes. Brice Johnson had the big numbers for the Tar Heels – 16 points, 16 rebounds – and UNC (11-2) had six players in double figures against the Spartans (4-9), coached by former Tar Heels guard Wes Miller.
Meeks was on the bench but has not gotten any basketball work, Williams said. Williams said Meeks’ availability early in the ACC schedule is uncertain, saying it might be “awfully tough” for him to play.
Johnson checked a Smith Center video board with 4 minutes, 11 seconds remaining, noticing his rebound total. The senior also saw Joel James sitting at the scorer’s table, coming in to replace him.
Johnson, who had a career-best 17 rebounds against East Carolina last season, smiled and pointed up at the board when he got to the bench.
“To be honest, I just wanted to get 20 rebounds in a game, just one time here,” said Johnson, who had his seventh double-double of the season. “I asked coach if I could stay in just a few more minutes and he said, ‘No.’ But that’s all right.”
Williams didn’t like the fact UNC Greensboro shot 52 percent from the field in the second half, saying the defense has to be much better against ACC teams.
But Williams liked the Tar Heels’ 16 offensive rebounds and 18 second-chance points. He was pleased with getting 20 points off 15 Spartans turnovers, with shooting 50 percent from the field in each half and 55.4 percent for the game.
Williams said was not sure Saturday or Sunday if Paige would be able to play or if he might have to wait until the ACC opener as a precautionary move.
“But he said he felt good (Monday),” Williams said. “When I took him out … I said ‘How did it feel?’ and he said better right now than at any time since he did it. Hopefully it won’t stiffen up.”
Paige sank a 3-pointer on his first shot and had 11 points in 11 minutes in the first half as UNC built a 47-28 lead. The Spartans got within 11 points twice during the second half – the last at 67-56 with nine minutes left – but Johnson had back-to-back dunks to spur a 15-2 run.
Isaiah Hicks finished with 13 points and has been in double figures the past five games, a career best for the 6-foot-9 junior.
The Tar Heels will get a full ACC dose early. After Clemson, they will host Georgia Tech on Saturday, then play Monday at Florida State.
“I’m ready to hit ACC play,” Paige said. “These games have been good to tweak some things to get us ready and get our confidence up. It’s more fun when it’s the grind of the ACC.”