North Carolina’s 90-72 win over Stanford on Monday night offered an early glimpse of everything this year’s Tar Heels will have to offer.
There was the high-flying 52 point first half for the offense, led by Luke Maye’s 14 points, 60 percent shooting and a jaw-dropping alley-oop from Seventh Woods to Nassir Little; the all-around defensive effort that held Stanford to just 26 first-half points on 35.5 percent shooting; and the dominant rebounding that yielded a 24-11 halftime advantage on the glass.
Then came the second half, which plainly showed how far the Tar Heels are from a finished product. Stanford outscored UNC 36-28 in that final frame, shooting 51.6 percent in the half before it missed its final five shots in garbage time. The Cardinal out-rebounded the Tar Heels 24-21 in the half, including a seven to five advantage on offensive boards.
Always one to emphasize necessary improvements, Roy Williams fixated on the Tar Heels’ second half after the game, likening the defense to “matadors” for allowing the Cardinal a slew of easy baskets.
“It was very frustrating to me,” the UNC coach said. “That was not the game we wanted to play, not the way we want to guard people.”
Senior guard Kenny Williams — the team’s best perimeter defender — said he noticed an inexcusable drop in energy and intensity on the defensive end.
“They had 46 points and that shouldn’t happen at all,” he said, “we gotta have more pride on that end and pay attention to the little things.”
Stanford cut the Tar Heels’ lead to 17 a couple of times in the second half, but every potential Cardinal run met its match with a UNC basket. On a night where UNC’s highly touted freshman class made its Dean Dome debut, it was the senior triumvirate of Williams, Luke Maye and Cam Johnson who made the plays when the Tar Heels needed it.
Johnson led the team with 17 points on 7-11 shooting. Maye followed with 16 points and eight rebounds, while Williams added 12 points as well.
Williams’ scoring came efficiently off of 4-6 shooting and eased some early season pressure on the senior guard. He had scored just one point and missed all 10 of his shots over UNC’s wins at Wofford and Elon. That drought ended just 88 seconds into Monday night’s game when he sliced through the Stanford defense and laid in his first field goal of the season. Fewer than two minutes later, he spotted up and drained the first of his two three-pointers on the night.
“It felt great to see the first field goal go in and then the first three,” Williams said. “It was a little weight lifted off my shoulders. Nobody was worried, but everybody knew I hadn’t made a shot.”
All three seniors scored to stem different Stanford runs in the second half, with the final dagger coming off a transition three by Johnson with eight minutes left to push the lead back to 20.
But even with the Cardinal lingering, the result was never really in doubt thanks to a truly dominant first half that left the Tar Heels with a 26-point advantage. Eight Tar Heels scored points in that half — led by Maye with 14 — but it was the freshman Little who made the biggest waves in the half.
Little first energized the crowd early on by diving to the floor to force a jump ball, then flexing his impressive 18 year-old muscles after the play. Minutes later he took flight to slam home a Seventh Woods alley-oop pass for the first of many highlight reel plays he’ll make on Roy Williams Court.
“Coming off the bench, I just wanted to bring energy,” Little said, “spark the team and bring it to the next level.”
That next level disappeared after halftime as the Tar Heels’ youth reared its head with a series of missed defensive assignments, but Monday still offered UNC plenty of value.
It gave Roy Williams an opportunity to light a fire under his team without the result ever being in doubt and it provided the team’s senior leaders a glimpse of where they need to improve with spiritual leaders Joel Berry and Theo Pinson no longer in the locker room.
UNC’s veterans learned that making plays isn’t enough — their job is to ensure the entire team meets the standard for intensity.
“Tonight, (things) weren’t going our way and we definitely could have done a better job of rallying the troops and getting everybody back on the same page,” Kenny Williams said. “We kind of struggled with that tonight.”
“It’s a long season, we can just take that and learn from it.”