North Carolina started the new year slow in its game against Harvard on Wednesday.
But when it finally got going, there was no doubt it would win. After leading by only five points early in the second half, UNC held Harvard to only one point during an eight-minute span, and increased its lead to 20 points midway through the second half.
The Tar Heels would hold on and defeat the Crimson 77-57.
Five Tar Heel players scored in double figures. Senior forward Luke Maye led all scorers with 14 points. Freshman guard Coby White and graduate senior Cam Johnson both scored 13, freshman wing Nassir Little scored 12 points, and senior guard Kenny Williams had 11 points.
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Only one Harvard player — 6-11, 205-pound junior, Robert Baker — scored in double figures. He had 10 points.
As a team, UNC shot 42 percent from the floor, which was its second-lowest shooting percentage this season. But it ultimately did not matter.
UNC (10-3) will enter conference play riding a two-game winning streak after a tough loss to Kentucky in Chicago on Dec. 22. UNC beat Davidson 82-60 at the Dean Smith Center last Saturday.
The Tar Heels had trouble making shots early in the game against the Crimson, but they stayed ahead by playing good defense. Harvard (6-6) came into the game ranked 334th in the country out of 351 teams in turnovers. It averages 16.5 turnovers per game.
The Tar Heels took advantage, forcing 12 first-half turnovers, and 22 for the game.
“They can speed you up with how hard they play defensively in denying and creating turnovers,” said former Duke point guard, and now Harvard coach Tommy Amaker. “And that’s something they’ve done so well forever, and we certainly — a few that I thought we just kind of self-inflicted.”
UNC got out to a 17-10 start through the first eight minutes of the game. But Harvard answered with an 8-0 run to take a brief 18-17 lead. Over the next 12 minutes, though, the Tar Heels outscored the Crimson 24-13, and led 41-31 at halftime.
UNC again started the second half slow. Harvard cut the lead to five points with 16:24 left in the game.
But Harvard went cold, missing its next 11 shots. UNC went on a 16-1 run and took a 60-40 lead with less than nine minutes remaining.
“I think during that stretch we got some stops defensively with our switching,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “They turned it over and we came down and got good shots and they went in for us.”
That was all UNC needed.
In the first half, the Tar Heels took care of the basketball, turning it over only four times. But they got careless late in the game and finished with 11 turnovers.
The Tar Heels finished their non-conference slate winning 10 of their 13 games. It included wins over then-No. 4 Gonzaga at home and then-No. 17 UCLA on a neutral court. But it also included losses to then-No. 9 Michigan, Texas and then-No. 19 Kentucky.
UNC’s first ACC opponent will be Pittsburgh on Saturday.
“It’s big-time basketball in front of us now,” Williams said. “We have to play better.”