It wasn’t the emphatic, start-to-finish statement that North Carolina might have hoped to have made following a stunning loss on Saturday, but the Tar Heels’ 80-69 victory against Northwestern on Monday night provided UNC with what it needed.
A victory, most of all, after a 71-67 loss at Northern Iowa on Saturday. But also challenges and some adversity, some difficult stretches that will likely have coach Roy Williams demanding more urgency and focus – along with positives to build on, too.
Overall, UNC on Monday night during its first game of the Hall of Fame Classic looked very much like what it is: a team finding its way without its best player and one still with a long way to travel before fulfilling its potential.
Which can be a good thing, given that March is still more than three months away. In stretches, the Tar Heels provided glimpses of what kind of team they could become by then, when the games are far more important than now.
Like when UNC closed the first half on a 14-1 run that gave it 43-36 lead at halftime. Or when, after Northwestern cut its deficit to two points less than three minutes into the half, the Tar Heels responded with a 12-2 run – capped by a Joel Berry 3-pointer that prompted a timeout – that gave them a 60-48 lead with about 13 minutes to play.
Eventually the Tar Heels’ lead grew as large as 20 points with about 8 1/2 minutes to play. Northwestern cut it down to 11 with less than four minutes left but came no closer.
Given what happened a couple days earlier at Northern Iowa, the Tar Heels might have hoped for a more thorough performance against Northwestern, a team that is attempting to establish momentum in coach Chris Collins’ third season. Yet this was an uneven performance.
The Tar Heels started well enough on Monday night and led by 10 points less than six minutes into the game. But then Northwestern began a 27-11 lead during the next 10 minutes, and after that stretch the Tar Heels found themselves trailing, 35-29.
Which then led to UNC’s inspired, energetic run to close the half – a run that reflected the Tar Heels’ balance: a Theo Pinson 3-pointer on one possession, followed by a Brice Johnson tip-in on the next, followed by a layup from Justin Jackson, the sophomore forward who led UNC with 21 points.
One of the bright spots for UNC came in the moments before the game. Marcus Paige, the senior guard who is still recovering from a broken bone in his right hand, went through warm-ups. He made his way through the lay-up line, and shot jumpers – an indication that is recovery is progressing.
Without Paige, the ACC’s preseason co-player of the year, the offense hasn’t been as fluid. The Tar Heels have missed his steadying presence, and some players have been challenged to adapt to his absence.
Johnson, the senior forward who scored 10 points on Monday night, said recently that hasn’t felt in sync without Paige on the floor. In the backcourt, Joel Berry, who has been starting in place of Paige, has gained important on-the-job training but at times it has come with a cost.
That was evident, again, on Monday night. The Tar Heels won in fashion similar to their victories against Wofford and Fairfield. Which is to say the outcome was never in doubt – at least not in the second half – though it took a while for the Tar Heels to pull away.
In addition to Jackson and Johnson, Berry (12 points), Kennedy Meeks (12), Theo Pinson (10) and Isaiah Hicks (10) also scored in double figures for the Tar Heels, who shot 44 percent from the field and made 7 of their 24 3-point attempts against the Wildcats’ zone defense.
With the victory on Monday night UNC advanced to the Hall of Fame Classic’s championship game, where it will play against Kansas State – a 66-42 winner against Missouri – on Tuesday night. It will be another chance for the Tar Heels to do what they attempted to do on Monday: put together a complete game that more reflects their potential.