The best part of North Carolina’s 83-74 victory against Davidson on Wednesday night was also the part that coach Roy Williams seemed the least interested in discussing. It was Justin Jackson’s 27 points and his seven 3-pointers – three more than he’d ever made in a college game.
During his first two seasons at UNC, Jackson made four 3-pointers in a game only one time. Already he’s done it three times in 10 games this season, including Wednesday, which begs questions about how Jackson has become the perimeter shooter he’s become.
“I have no idea,” Williams said, ending that part of his answer there.
What Williams knew, instead, was this: “We sucked,” he said after the Tar Heels shot 37.7 percent from the field and nearly surrendered a 16-point second-half lead. “Now my wife’s going to be mad at me.”
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At home Williams may well have to contend with Wanda, his wife, who might have found some displeasure in Williams’ word choice. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, will have to contend with Williams after what was perhaps their sloppiest, most lethargic performance of the season.
Jackson played one of his better games, finishing one 3-pointer short of tying the single-game school record, and UNC won. Those were the positives, at least, for the Tar Heels, and they were two more positives than they had a week ago after a defeat at Indiana. This game, though, wasn’t like that one.
The Hoosiers last week “manhandled” UNC, Williams said on Wednesday. And against Davidson?
“We just did some not-very intelligent things,” Williams said. “Now, I’ve loved coaching this team. Sometimes, we’ve been really sharp, really into it. I think we thought it was going to be easy.
“In my opinion we weren’t ready to play.”
It was an opinion based in fact. After five minutes Davidson led 10-3, and the Tar Heels at that point had as many turnovers as points. That was right around then when Williams decided he’d seen enough. He went with a familiar maneuver, one he has often used in similar situations early in a season.
He pulled his starters from the game, and in their place used a lineup comprised of reserves. This time it was Stilman White, Luke Maye and freshmen Seventh Woods, Brandon Robinson and Tony Bradley. The move worked, at least in the short term. Those reserves went on a 12-3 run to give the Tar Heels their first lead.
On the bench, meanwhile, the starters received a non-verbal message. They sat there next to Joel Berry, the junior point guard who wore a gray suit, his left foot in a protective boot. Berry didn’t play after suffering a sprained ankle in a victory on Sunday against Radford, and now no other starter was playing, either.
“It shows we’re not playing like we deserve to start,” Isaiah Hicks, the senior forward, said of the message Williams sent. “And put the second group in, they played the way coach wants them to play.”
After about four minutes the starters returned. Jackson made three of his seven 3s during the final 10 minutes of the first half, and No. 7 UNC (9-1) led 42-32 at halftime. The lead grew as large as 16 points near the mid-point of the second half, but Davidson (5-3) kept on coming back, a little bit at a time.
With less than two minutes remaining, it was a three-point game, UNC’s lead down to 76-73. The crowd at the Smith Center grew nervous, tense. With a minute left, UNC leading by five, the fans were on their feet, urging the Tar Heels on.
They extended their lead in the final moments at the free-throw line, finally putting the game away. Not that Williams found much solace in the victory. With Berry on the bench, UNC seemed to be missing something – his calming presence over the offense, for one thing, but also an intangible energy.
“Intensity,” Jackson said, when asked where the team most missed Berry. “There was maybe one or two guys that were really into it, and then the rest were just kind of dead.”
Davidson did its part to frustrate the Tar Heels. The Wildcats, led by 30 points from Jack Gibbs and 22 from Peyton Aldridge, double-teamed UNC in the post, often forcing others to make something happen on the perimeter. Jackson did, for one, but outside of him the Tar Heels’ other guards and wing forwards combined to make four of their 18 attempts from the field.
Which was part of the reason for Williams’ ire afterward. It’d been fun, he said, watching the Tar Heels at certain points this season. This, though, wasn’t among those times. Williams provided his team with another message after it ended, in addition to the one he sent early in the first half.
Jackson described it like this: “We’ve got to figure out if we want to be a good basketball team.”