There was a fast start that allowed for a comfortable lead, followed by long stretches of futility on offense, mixed with longer stretches with glimpses of the kind of menacing defensive team North Carolina can be.
Not that Roy Williams, the Tar Heels’ coach, was impressed with that or any other aspect of his team’s 76-60 season-opening victory against N.C. Central on Friday night.
“OK, it was a W,” Williams said not long after he sat down for his postgame press conference outside the Smith Center court. “Not the prettiest thing in the world.”
It wasn’t as pretty, not nearly, as the Tar Heels’ two exhibition victories against a pair of over-matched opponents. That wasn’t necessarily the point, though, on the first night of the season.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
The Tar Heels (1-0), led by 12 points from Brice Johnson, learned a thing or two about themselves during their first game that counted. One of the lessons was likely this: It won’t always be as smooth as they’re capable of making it look. Sometimes, it will rarely be so.
That was evident enough during the first 10 minutes. UNC scored the first 11 points, and led 11-0 with 15 minutes, 35 seconds remaining before halftime. It seemed, then, like the Tar Heels might simply coast. That it’d be easy.
And then it wasn’t. After making five of its first nine shots, the Tar Heels’ offense bogged down against the Eagles’ 2-3 zone. UNC scored 11 points during the first four minutes, 25 seconds, and then scored 11 during the next 12 minutes before a pair of free throws from Johnson, the junior forward.
“We didn’t really get a good tempo going,” said Kennedy Meeks, the Tar Heels’ sophomore forward who finished with 10 points and nine rebounds. “They slowed us down with their sets.”
That was part of it. Another part of the issue for the Tar Heels: their inability to execute against the Eagles’ zone defense.
N.C. Central (0-1) used a 2-3 zone in the first half, and then a 1-3-1 at times in the second. Asked for his thoughts on his team’s execution against the zone, Williams cracked an old joke and said, yes, he was in favor of his team’s execution – in the sense of capital punishment.
But no, Williams said, “I didn’t think it was very good. And this time of year, we’ve got so many things we’ve got to improve on.”
Creating fast-break opportunities is one of those things. So is rebounding.
Williams wasn’t pleased that, at halftime, the Eagles had scored more points off offensive rebounds than UNC. UNC finished with a 16-13 advantage there.
Another thing that bothered Williams: the lack of help UNC provided for Marcus Paige, the junior guard who enters the season a National Player of the Year candidate. Paige finished with eight points, but Williams didn’t appreciate the lack of screens his teammates set for him.
“That wouldn’t be the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen anybody do,” Williams said of the prospect of setting screens for Paige, who at times faced a box-and-one.
After that fast start, the Tar Heels missed 12 of their final 18 shots of the half, and led 28-19 at halftime. The Eagles never threatened – not seriously, anyway – after UNC at the start of the second half used back-to-back three-point plays to stretch its lead to 14.
From there, UNC never led by fewer than 12 but still labored for points, at times.
While the Tar Heels never quite found their rhythm offensively, they compensated defensively. UNC played aggressively in its normal half-court man-to-man, and also mixed in a half-court trap and a little bit of a full-court press.
N.C. Central shot 25.9 percent during the first half, and 32.1 percent overall. Eagles guard Anthony McDonald led N.C. Central with 16 points.
Nothing came easily for the Eagles on offense, and coach LeVelle Moten described his team’s performance as “raggedy.” Williams, though, didn’t seem all that impressed with his defense – or anything else. That filtered down to his players, too, who spoke with a sense of dissatisfaction of their first victory of the season.
The Tar Heels looked good defensively. They forced just 14 turnovers but were active on the perimeter, especially, and made life difficult for N.C. Central in all aspects. The Eagles missed nine of their first 10 shots and 13 of their first 16 and shot just 30.9 percent overall. It was a good defensive start for UNC, which mixed in a variety of looks, including a half-court trap and full-court press.
It wasn't a good night for the Tar Heels on offense. UNC's execution was lacking against the Eagles' zone. N.C. Central used a 2-3 and a 1-3-1 to keep the Tar Heels out of sync, and it worked. After that fast start there weren't a ton of offensive highlights for UNC. The scoring was balanced, at least, but preseason All-American Marcus Paige scored just eight points.