Stilman White couldn't remember the last time he had played as often in a first half, whether it was only a couple of years ago or whether it was well beyond that, going back to a freshman season that now seems so distant all these years later.
“I might have gotten in the ACC tournament a couple of years ago for a little bit,” White, the North Carolina senior guard, said after the Tar Heels' 104-61 victory against Chaminade on Monday night. “But I haven't played a couple of minutes in a row like that probably since my freshman year.”
That, as a reminder, was the 2011-12 season, before White left the team for two seasons to go on a Mormon mission. And so it had been a while since UNC coach Roy Williams looked down his bench during a first half and called on White, as Williams did here on Monday.
At the time, Williams was searching for something. The Tar Heels, sloppy during a 15-point victory at Hawaii last Friday night, were sputtering again against Chaminade in the first round of the Maui Invitational. A small but spirited group of Silverswords' fans, all dressed in purple, was up and loud.
Williams called on White midway through the first half. The Tar Heels, leading by a meager five points at the time, had committed turnovers on four of their previous five possessions, a stretch that left Williams gritting his teeth and yelling and shaking his head, looking exasperated.
Nate Britt, the senior guard, had committed his third foul by then. Brandon Robinson, a freshman, had just committed one of those four turnovers and then, defensively, he hadn't done “at all” what Williams had wanted him to do.
“So I said I'll put Stilman in,” Williams said, “because I know he'll try really, really hard. He's not as gifted as those other two. And he gave us a couple of good possessions, made a basket, had an assist, did the right thing defensively.”
White's first-half appearance became but a footnote in an eventual runaway. For UNC the quick version of the story on Monday night was that, eventually, it exploited superior size, and talent, and won with little trouble, which was the expectation against the Silverswords, a Division II team that’s the tournament host.
Isaiah Hicks led UNC with 22 points. Kennedy Meeks finished with 20. Those two, both senior forwards, had never scored 20 points in the same game. Chaminade, which used a starting lineup comprised of five guards, had little hope of containing the Tar Heels on the inside.
That was, for No. 4 UNC, the long story short. The more nuanced version, though, includes the early-game struggles on Monday night. It includes Williams looking deep down his bench and calling on White. It includes, overall, the Tar Heels' response from the season's first challenge.
That didn't necessarily come from an opponent, though Hawaii tested the Tar Heels at times last Friday night. That might have been nothing, though, compared to how Williams tested his players after a 15-point victory that he found dissatisfying. White put it another way.
“Last couple of days have been kind of rough,” he said. “Coach has been pretty hard on us because our performance on Friday was pretty pathetic.”
Predictably, then, there had been some long practices and meetings since, even amid the built-in festivities that trip to Maui entails. Hicks described UNC's practice before the Hawaii game as “sluggish.” Meeks said the preparation was “a lot different” approaching the Maui Invitational.
“The mood the other day wasn't good,” Meeks said, referencing the day after the 83-68 victory at Hawaii. “I think coach always said during the film session that we should have been embarrassed for the way we played.”
Williams on Monday remembered more difficult practices than the first one his players endured after the ugly performance at Hawaii. It wasn't, he said dryly, “a murderous practice or anything like that.”
“I've had some of those,” he said.
The focus, after UNC allowed Hawaii to shoot nearly 60 percent in the second half, was on defense. The Tar Heels were better defensively on Monday, but at times that was difficult to gauge given Chaminade's reliance on spreading the court and attempting 3-pointers.
The Silverswords, who are still drawing inspiration from a 1982 victory against Virginia that is considered the greatest upset in college basketball history, had been hoping to keep it close against UNC for as long as possible. That turned out to be about 14 minutes.
The Tar Heels closed the first half on a 14-3 run, turning a five-point advantage into a 50-34 lead. It grew into a 20-point lead three minutes into the second half, and then into a 30-point lead with about 11 minutes to play.
It finished about as expected. The Tar Heels did what they wanted inside. Chaminade did what it could – which wasn't often much -- while UNC secured about 70 percent of the available rebounds (52-23). Williams afterward used familiar descriptors – “we're bigger,” he said, and “more gifted.”
And UNC likely would have won comfortably had it played poorly. Instead, though, the Tar Heels shot 57.8 percent and won in Williams' preferred inside-out style. They won after responding to Williams' challenge, which may or may not have included turning to White in the first half.
Given the Tar Heels' experience, Williams smiled and said he didn't have to verbalize his frustration with this team. And yet, Meeks said, “he does a good job of getting on us and getting to us.”
And so it was in the days leading into UNC's first game on Maui, where the Tar Heels will play against Oklahoma State on Tuesday in the tournament semifinals. During the first 14 minutes, Williams at times appeared as mad as he was after the lackluster victory at Hawaii.
He had shared that frustration with the team but, White said, “He shouldn't have to.”
“We have so many guys back from last year and we played on the last game of the season,” said White, whose five points, in eight minutes, were a career high. “And we're playing in the preseason tournament that we all grew up watching and dreamed about playing in. … So not much needs to be said.”