Roy Williams hadn’t been content until Saturday. Why he felt good about UNC’s win against Pitt

The demeanor from North Carolina coach Roy Williams after Saturday’s 85-60 win over Pittsburgh was noticeably different.

While Williams did not exactly seem happy, he was satisfied with the way his team played in its ACC opener. In some of his other post game press conferences, he had felt his team, at times, lacked intensity, or did not play good defense, or committed too many turnovers.

After this game, he had praise for the way his players had played.

“All in all, I feel good about (the win),” Williams said.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams tucks the ball under his after after a turnover against Pitt during the first half on Saturday, January 5, 2019 at Peterson Events Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. Robert Willett

That’s in contrast to when he told his players after its 77-57 win over Harvard last week, that the ACC would be the big leagues and not Biddy Basketball.

The 15th-ranked Tar Heels (11-3, 1-0 ACC) led by as many as 33 points against Pitt (10-4, 0-1), an ACC opponent that had played well.

When asked was this one of UNC’s best overall performances this season, Williams said, “I can say that because I haven’t been pleased all year.”

UNC beat then-No. 4 Gonzaga 103-90 at home on Dec. 15, but it also committed 23 turnovers that game.

This game, though, was in a hostile environment on the road in the ACC. The crowd was loud at the start. The student-section yelled during the introductions, and booed every time UNC graduate senior Cam Johnson (he transferred from Pitt to UNC) touched the ball.

Pitt trailed 15-14 with about 12 minutes left in the first half. But after that, the Tar Heels took over. They went on a 26-3 run over the next 10 minutes and buried the Panthers.

“We jumped out early, and then they tied it up, and the crowd got into it, and we made two or three good plays in a row,” Williams said. “After that, we just kept methodically playing.”

North Carolina’s Garrison Brooks (15) puts up a shot against Pitt’sKene Chukwuka (15) during the second half on Saturday, January 5, 2019 at Peterson Events Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. Robert Willett

UNC freshman guard Coby White led all scorers with 22 points. He was 8-for-15 from the floor and 4-for-10 from 3.

The Tar Heels had multiple players in foul trouble and had to go to their bench earlier than normal. UNC forwards Nassir Little and Brandon Robinson both played well off the bench.

Little had six points and six rebounds, and a highlight reel block. Robinson had five points and three steals, some of which led to fast break points.

“In practice I try to prepare like I’m a starter...and just push myself,” Robinson said. “So when my opportunity and when my number is called, I’m ready to just go in and make a difference in the game, and help us, not hurt us.”

The biggest improvement the Tar Heels made Saturday was on defense. It had been the thing that had bothered Williams most. In an ACC road game, where momentum can easily swing in the home team’s favor, and the intensity goes up a notch, things could have gone in a different direction.

But it didn’t.

UNC stayed poised, and forced Pitt to shoot 31 percent from the floor overall, and 11 percent from behind the 3-point line. During that 26-3 run over a 10 1/2 minute stretch in the first half, Pitt went 0-for-8 and committed three turnovers.

“We had a (26-3) run?” White asked with a smile. “Oh, I didn’t know that.

The more Pitt missed, the more its players grew frustrated.

“We all played, from one through... 15, I feel like everybody brought it,” UNC freshman Leaky Black said. “In practice, we had a ton of possessions where we all just clicked. We were all just talking on defense, rotations, everything was just there...That’s what coach was telling us, that’s what we have the potential to do.”

At times, especially in the first half, it sure looked that way. In each of UNC’s last three wins — against Davidson, Harvard and Pitt — its opponents have shot below 39 percent from the floor.

There are still some things UNC must do better, which is why Johnson, who had 15 points, nine rebounds and four assists, in his homecoming game, feels like the Tar Heels are not close to reaching their ceiling.

“There’s just so many areas where we can improve,” Johnson said. “Defend better, rebound a little better, and we didn’t shoot the ball very well today.”

UNC shot 43 percent from the floor on Saturday, its fourth consecutive game in which it shot below 45 percent. UNC had 51 rebounds to Pitt’s 46. But the Tar Heels weren’t satisfied.

“We want a big margin,” Johnson said. UNC is second in the country in rebounding margin, grabbing 12.2 more rebounds than its opponent per game.

North Carolina’s Nassir Little (5) takes a hand in the face from Pitt’s Trey McGowens (2) as they battle for a rebound during the first half on Saturday, January 5, 2019 at Peterson Events Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. Robert Willett

When asked about the shooting, he said, “Could be better.”

Williams said the same about the areas the team could improve. UNC has another tough opponent against N.C. State (13-1, 1-0) in Raleigh on Jan. 8. But if UNC plays like it did against Pitt, where all of its players are clicking, it will be hard to beat.

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Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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