By the time North Carolina’s 97-57 victory against Chattanooga came to an end on Sunday, it was difficult to remember the early struggle for the Tar Heels – the turnovers and the shooting difficulties, the sloppiness, the fact that, for a while, the result seemed somewhat in doubt.
The Mocs, who last season were an NCAA tournament No. 12 seed that won 29 games, played with little fear of the Tar Heels, little awe of the Smith Center and all those banners hanging high. Chattanooga led during most of the first 13 minutes and had a 26-23 lead with about eight minutes remaining before halftime.
From there, though, UNC (2-0) treated the Mocs (1-1) less like the kind of team it might encounter in March, during an early-round NCAA tournament game, and more like one it might face in November during an exhibition. The Tar Heels outscored Chattanooga 21-7 during the rest of the half. The rout was on.
Casual observers, those just quickly checking the score or seeing it crawl along the bottom of a game on ESPN, might assume this was another lopsided victory against an over-matched opponent. It was one of those things, at least.
The Mocs, though, entered the Smith Center days removed from a 13-point season-opening victory at Tennessee. Chattanooga returned all five of its starters, including preseason Southern Conference Player of the Year Tre’ McLean and Justin Tuoyo, a 6-foot-10 forward who has twice been the conference’s defensive player of the year.
Last year, Chattanooga lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Indiana, which two rounds later lost against the Tar Heels during the run to the national championship game. Chattanooga expected to be better this season, and it still might be. On Sunday, though, it was no match for UNC.
After that somewhat sluggish start, one that included four turnovers during the first four minutes and 39 seconds, the Tar Heels mostly did what they wanted – especially defensively. They forced 26 turnovers – 16 of those in the second half.
Kenny Williams, the sophomore guard, helped inspire UNC’s defensive resurgence toward the end of the first half. Williams, who started UNC’s season-opener on Friday at Tulane, came off the bench on Sunday and provided energy. He finished with 11 points, five assists, five rebounds and three steals.
Williams in the final minutes scored his 11th point, joining five of his teammates in double figures. Joel Berry, the junior guard who scored 23 points during UNC’s season-opening 95-75 victory against Tulane on Friday, led the Tar Heels with 18.
Kennedy Meeks (14 points), Isaiah Hicks (13), Tony Bradley (12) and Justin Jackson (10 – all in the second half) also finished in double figures for No. 6 UNC, which shot 47.8 percent. In addition to the turnovers it forced, UNC also limited Chattanooga’s scoring chances when the Mocs didn’t turn it over. They shot 36.7 percent.
By the end, UNC’s walk-ons were on the court. The Smith Center crowd thinned, and Chattanooga’s early lead was a long distant memory.