After the North Carolina men’s basketball team was outscored 46-38 in the second half of a win over Stanford last Monday, Roy Williams said the best thing that ever happened to his team was that they didn’t have practice tomorrow. And when they got back from their day off on Tuesday, they’d practice with the rims off.
On Friday night, UNC never took their foot of the gas against Tennessee Tech, outscoring the Golden Eagles 58-32 in the second half en route to an 108-58 victory for the Tar Heels’ fourth win of the year.
So did the no-rim practice work?
Not quite. Because the no-rim practice never happened.
“My assistants talked me out of it,” Williams said. “We talked about it at halftime, that if we played the second half like we did Monday night, it was a great possibility the rims wouldn't be on there (tomorrow). And Coach (Steve Robinson) said 'you guys do not want to go through that.'"
Instead, Williams said, UNC spent almost their entire practice focused on defensive drills. Shuffles, 4-on-4 shell, two-man closeouts.
The work showed. The Tar Heels held TTU to just 35.9 percent shooting on the night, stole the ball 16 times, and added eight blocks for good measure in total domination on the defensive side of the ball. Closeouts were bigger, help defense was faster, hands were more active.
“We were more blessed and should win that kind of game,” Williams said. “But, I think we did gain something from the way we felt after Monday night’s game.”
And of course, a biscuit-earning 100+ point game doesn’t come without success on the other half of the court. The Tar Heels had 29 assists on 41 made baskets. UNC scored 29 points on the fast break, more point on the break than they’ve had any game in the last three years. And six Tar Heels finished with double figures in points, led by Luke Maye’s 15.
“We have a lot of guys that can put the ball in the basket and make plays,” Maye said. “A lot of guys made great passes tonight, which is really big.”
Seventh Woods was one of those guys making the passes. He had a career eight assists, including a behind-the-back pass to a Cameron Johnson three-pointer that sent a gasp through the Smith Center crowd.
“I honestly didn't know I did it until after I did it, so I guess it was natural,” Woods said with a laugh.
About the only thing the Tar Heels didn’t do well was shoot the three-point shot. They went 2-12 in the first half, and 5-23 for the whole game from behind the arc. But that hardly mattered when they could get to the rim as easily as they did against the Golden Eagles. Forwards Maye, Garrison Brooks, and Sterling Manley combined to shoot 15 for 22 from the field, while the Tar Heels as a whole out-rebounded the Golden Eagles 54-24.
That dominance in the post forced TTU into a zone, which allowed Manley to take a step back and knock down some jumpers, a part of a his game he says he’s always had, but hasn’t gotten a chance to show off too much in his Carolina career.
“When you come in on a team, last year, your role isn't made out to shoot jumpers,” the sophomore said. “This year, I have to be a bigger part, expand my game. Coach sees that I work on things, so he gives me a little more range.
“Now if I got out there and airball, he's going to be like 'get back in the paint.' But if he sees me making shots, trying, he's seeing it’s something I work on in practice. He's going to let me go, and then I get more confidence."
The Tar Heels sit at 4-0 ahead of their game on Monday against St. Francis. After that, a trip to Vegas to take on Texas, and then either Michigan State or UCLA. After that, a road game in Ann Arbor. The meat of the off-conference schedule is coming, but performances against teams where you’re “more gifted, more blessed, more tallented, bigger and all of those things,” as Williams described post-game, need to be decisive.
Friday night, the Tar Heels were decisive. But Luke MAye knows there’s more down the road.
“We just have to continue to work every day and try to continue to learn how to play with each other,” Maye said. “It is early in the season, but I think we have good chemistry.”
Injury update: Roy Williams said Kenny Williams, who sprained his right ankle towards the end of the game, would likely be able to go on Monday, but he’ll likely miss practice on Saturday as a precaution.