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Five takeaways from UNC’s win over St. Francis, and what it means before the next three games

Roy Williams following win against St. Francis: ‘The biggest frustration for me was the turnovers’

North Carolina coach Roy Williams addresses the media following win over St. Francis
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North Carolina coach Roy Williams addresses the media following win over St. Francis

It’s becoming a theme in Chapel Hill.

Despite winning its last four games by 18 points or more, North Carolina coach Roy Williams has not been happy with how his team has performed at times this season.

And rightfully so. UNC led St. Francis (Pa.) 52-36 at halftime on Monday night at the Dean Smith Center, but allowed it to get within six points after four minutes into the second half.

While St. Francis (1-2) has gotten off to a rough start this season, including a 95-58 loss to No. 20 UCLA last Friday, it didn’t play like a struggling team on Monday.

The seventh-ranked Tar Heels turned the ball over 18 times on and allowed the Red Flash to stick around for much of the game.

After St. Francis cut UNC’s lead to 58-52 with about 16 minutes left, the Tar Heels went on an 11-0 run over the next three minutes to take a 17-point lead. And the Tar Heels cruised from there, winning 101-76.

This is the third consecutive time UNC has started a season 5-0.

“...the biggest frustration for me was the turnovers and putting them on the free throw line too much,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.

UNC graduate forward Cam Johnson, who leads UNC in scoring (17 ppg) and 3-point percentage (56.5 percent) this season, led all scorers on Monday with 20 points. He also had six rebounds. Freshman wing Nassir Little, who averages 13 points per game, had 19 points and 7 rebounds, including a couple of highlight dunks.

But this is where the schedule gets tougher.

UNC will play Texas on Thursday in the Las Vegas Invitational before playing either No. 11 Michigan State, or No. 17 UCLA on Friday. After that, on Nov. 28, UNC will play at No. 9 Michigan in Ann Arbor. And two games after that, on Dec. 15, UNC will play No. 3 Gonzaga at home.

When asked whether he was excited to see how his team would handle the competition in Las Vegas, coach Williams said, “No.”

“Because right now I don’t think I like how they are going to handle it,” coach Williams said. “I told them we have to have a good practice tomorrow, but we are getting ready to play a different animal. If we play like we did in some stretches tonight, it will be very unpleasant for us.”

Here are five takeaways from UNC’s win:

1. Turnovers have been a serious problem

The Tar Heels’ biggest issue this season has been its turnovers. Their 18 turnovers on Monday were a season-high. They had nine in each half.

The turnovers are what allowed St. Francis to stay in the game, and ultimately cut UNC’s lead to six points. St. Francis scored 22 points off turnovers.

“Luke (Maye) had two, Seventh (Woods) had two in the first half and none in the second half,” coach Williams said while reading the stats. “Leaky (Black) had four. Coby (White) had four. Nassir (Little) had one, so that’s nine there.”

Many of the turnovers were unforced.

“Coby can attack the basket,” coach Williams said. “He made some silly plays. One he pitched ahead to Luke, and Luke wasn’t open. The very next play Sterling (Manley) threw to somebody else and he wasn’t open. I told them that it’s pretty easy to find out that they are not open because we didn’t catch the pass.”

The turnovers became apparent even before the season started. UNC had 22 turnovers in a preseason game against Mt. Olive on Nov. 2. It was the first sign of the Tar Heels’ inability to take care of the ball.

The Tar Heels came into Monday’s game averaging 12.8 turnovers per game, which was ranked 123rd out of 351 teams as of Monday morning. After Monday’s game, their average will increase to 13.8 turnovers per game, which would rank 178th in the country.

“Coach (Dean) Smith used to say that turnovers are either selfishness or carelessness,” coach William said in explaining the turnovers. “Half of ours tonight were carelessness and half of them were selfishness. Trying to make a great play or you’re careless with the basketball. We turned it over three times dribbling the ball. If you want to be good, you don’t turn the sucker over.”

2. Cam Johnson has become the go-to guy

Johnson has yet to cool down this season. He is shooting 59 percent from the floor through five games, and 56.5 percent from behind the 3-point line. He leads the team with 17 points per game.

Johnson, who was 2-for-6 from 3 on Monday, said he’s healthier and he feels more comfortable in the offense.

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North Carolina’s Cameron Johnson (13) puts up a shot against St. Francis’ Ramir Dixon-Conover (1) during the first half on Monday, November 19, 2018 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Johnson scored 11 points in the first half. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

The 6-9, 210-pound forward did not join UNC until the 12th game of the season last year because he was out with a knee injury. Getting used to the offense was adjustment in his first season there. But he seems to have found his place.

“My teammates are doing a really good job of finding me in specific spots,” Johnson said. “I think we’re just playing off each other and not really worried about who scores the most.”

Johnson’s 3-pointer with 6:51 left extended UNC’s lead to 21 points, and put the game away.

But coach Williams said Johnson isn’t just an offensive player. He said Johnson was the defensive player of the game against Tennessee Tech last Friday.

“He’s a complete player too,” coach Williams said. “I mean, he’s playing the four spot some, and that’s hard for him to do except it makes it easier because the guy guarding him is not nearly as mobile as he is too.”

3. Nassir Little learning the four spot

Little, a 6-6, 220-pound freshman wing has continued to get better with each game. On Monday, he had 19 points and 7 rebounds. He was 8-for-9 from the floor, and was 1-for-1 from 3.

Coach Williams said he likes how active Little has been. In recent games, Little has rebounded well. Two of his seven rebounds on Monday were offensive rebounds. But coach Williams said Little is in a tough situation.

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North Carolina’s Nassir Little (5) gets a dunk in the first half against St. Francis on Monday, November 19, 2018 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Little scored 19 points in the Tar Heels’ 101-76 victo Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

“We are trying to teach him the four spot a little bit,” coach Williams said. “For a freshman to go in and play more than one position, going across the line from three. Two/three is one player, four/five is another player. When you have to go across the line, it’s difficult.”

Having Little play the four, would eventually allow UNC to go small, but put Cam Johnson, who would prefer to play the three, at his natural position.

Little’s strength and leaping ability allows him to be versatile and play multiple positions.

Williams said Little has to take better care of the basketball, but he likes how hard he plays.

“8-for-9, that’s not bad guys,” coach Williams said. “I’d take that most nights.”

Little said during UNC’s run in the second half, he felt like he was back in high school, dominating again.

“I love to win and I felt like I was providing my team with the best chance to do that,” he said.

4. Seventh Woods has proven to be reliable

Woods, who did not play much last season, has been reliable especially in the last two games. Before this season, Woods’ career-high in assists was six. He has since passed that twice.

Woods had eight assists on Friday, and had seven on Monday. He had two turnovers, which all happened in the first half.

“Seventh was really good in the stretch there,” coach Williams said. “He was not very good at all in the first half, but in the second half during that stretch I thought he was really good.”

Williams subbed Woods in with 12:11 left in the game during UNC’s run. When he finally subbed out there was 4:42 left. But in those seven minutes and 30 seconds, Woods had five assists, two steals, two rebounds and two points.

“The tempo was pretty quick so I was able to get the ball up and make plays quickly,” Woods said. “I think I found (Little) for two, (Brandon Robinson) for one and Luke (Maye) running right up the middle. That is one of the things we preach is running the court and we were able to make plays out of it.”

When White has struggled this season, or has needed a break, Woods has proven to be a reliable and more efficient point guard than in the past. He had 20 assists and 12 turnovers all of last season.

Through five games this season, he has 27 assists and six turnovers.

5. Defense also has to be better

St. Francis took 27 free throws on Monday, which was equal to UNC. The Red Flash shot more free throws in the first half (16) than the Tar Heels did (9).

It was the second time in the last four games that a team has had 27 or more free throws in a game against the Tar Heels. Elon had 28 free throw attempts on Nov. 9.

UNC senior guard Kenny Williams said the reason for this is that players are not staying in front of their man on defense.

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North Carolina’s Cameron Johnson (13) tries for a steal from St. Francis’ Ramir Dixon-Conover (1) during the first half on Monday, November 19, 2018 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

St. Francis senior guard Jamaal King, who is 5-10, 170 pounds, had his way with the Tar Heels’ defense. Often times, he had a defender trailing him. King had 21 points, was 7-for-15 from the floor, and took eight free throws. He was also 2-for-2 from behind the 3-point line.

St. Francis’ Andre Wolford, also a senior guard, got to the free throw line often as well. He had 10 free throw attempts and made nine.

As a team, the Red Flash were 6-for-12 from behind the 3-point line in the second half.

“We got a little stagnant on defense in the second half,” Williams said. “Whenever we don’t guard the ball, it breaks down the whole defense and then we gotta help and then that’s when they get the open 3’s or the easy layups. If we take care of the ball the way we’re supposed to, everything else will take care of itself.”

Alexander, 919-829-4822; @jonmalexander

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