Luke DeCock

Finally, the Tar Heels become what they were supposed to be

The question was not whether North Carolina was capable of this, because that was never really in doubt. The question was where this kind of performance had been hiding, and what took so long for it to emerge.

Gonzaga felt the full wrath and force of the Tar Heels on Saturday, in a way even UCLA never did. This was as far from the Michigan debacle as possible. If that game showed the Tar Heels at their meandering worst, this win offered the full spectrum of their offensive abilities. Inside. Outside. Transition. Even some defense, although there’s still certainly work to be done there, not atypical for a North Carolina team in mid-December.

But few teams can outgun Gonzaga in a contest of firepower. Few would even try. North Carolina is one of them. On the right night, North Carolina has as much firepower as anyone. And this, a 103-90 win, was absolutely the right night for the Tar Heels. Finally.

“I’ve told them, I’m pretty straightforward, you guys can really shoot the ball,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “How about making them during games?”

Did they ever make them during this game, with Cameron Johnson banging in 3s and Luke Maye doing Luke Maye things to go over 1,000 points for his career and even Seventh Woods scoring nearly at will, breaking his career-high in the first half on his way to a final 14 points, one of only two players left who played against Gonzaga in the 2017 national-title game.

And when the Tar Heels did miss, they had about a 50-50 shot of getting the ball back. North Carolina outscored Gonzaga 27-0 on second-chance points, as one-sided a battle on the boards as there ever was.

Amid all that, there was still more than enough for Williams to complain about, from the turnovers – Coby White had five of the Tar Heels’ 23 – to a defense that displayed commendable energy, if not precision, in the first half only to fall back into old habits in the second. Nassir Little still seems to be searching for a role, too talented a player to have this little impact on the game.

But the Tar Heels have always had the ability to score like this, and when they do, it makes up for any number of deficiencies, even against one of the very few teams with the offensive weapons to match North Carolina, if not the rebounding acumen.

“Carolina was just fantastic all night tonight,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Shooting it. Rebounding it.”

Gonzaga remains as good a team as there is in the country, and on this night, North Carolina was not just better but better in nearly every facet. In short, this was the long-awaited realization of the Tar Heels’ considerable potential. And not a moment too late, given the unquestioned talent of this particular opponent.

“If we don’t play really, really well,” Williams said, “we can’t win this game. … We shot it in the hole and we guarded every now and then.”

In that respect, this kind of performance was as desperately awaited by North Carolina’s players as it was eagerly anticipated by North Carolina’s fans. Everyone knew it was in there somewhere, hiding, but with no idea if or when it would ever actually emerge.

“I think we kind of knew we could do this,” Kenny Williams said. “We’re big-time players. We knew we had it inside us. We just had to put the effort in.”

Saturday, they did. And the season began anew for the Tar Heels, having demonstrated themselves to be the team they were supposed to be.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.