With just under eight minutes to go in the first half, the Smith Center was tense. The holiday crowd of mostly families, taking up the seats normally held by students behind the basket, in the second deck, and around the bowl, grew restless.
The Tar Heels trailed Davidson 24-19, giving up a 9-0 run between media timeouts thanks to some silly fouls, poor defense, and cold shooting. Things kept going against UNC, some out of their control, but most weren’t
“It's not like an excitement kind of effort, it's doing little things,” Johnson said. “Doing little things that will get you tired. Crashing the glass every play. Making that extra effort to get around the screen on the defensive end. Making the extra effort to have a quick first step on your slide. Making an extra effort to deny. Running the court faster.
“It's not like an excitement kind of energy. It's so many little things that if you don't do them, it looks like a lack of effort.”
Out of the timeout, a switch flipped. Those little things changed. A basket through a foul from Garrison Brooks fell. A scoreless Coby White dishing one of his six first half assists to Brooks a few plays later. A Nassir Little put back off a missed three that sent the Smith Center crowd into a frenzy.
Suddenly, the Tar Heels had an 11-point lead at halftime. And never took the foot off the gas the rest of the way, cruising to an 82-60 win in their penultimate non-conference game of the season.
“I liked several things,” Roy Williams said. “I like five guys in double figures, I like the fact they shot 29 percent. The bad news is that they missed some open shots…I think at times were were good defensively, I think at times we did close out shooters.”
It was an improved game in almost every facet for the Tar Heels. Dominating on the boards, as usual, after an uncharacteristic loss in that stat column to Kentucky. Better defensive pressure, both in the post and on the perimeter. A fair amount of turnovers (14), but only five in the second half, and 20 assists on 26 total field goals.
And yes, the defense that has been porous at times this season held Davidson to just 60 points on 29.9 percent total shooting, including a 26.3 percent clip from beyond the arc. Sure, as Roy said, there were some wide open shots that just clanged off the rim, but the rotations were better. The length on the closeouts was better utilized.
And the post defense held firm, using their size and not biting on fakes to hold freshman Wildcat center Luka Brajkovic to just eight points on 4-for-11 shooting, with no free throws attempts all game.
The effort was there, even if there was still plenty of room to improve.
“You can lived with missed shots and missing passes and stuff like that, but you can’t live with someone outplaying you,” Sterling Manley said. “Just giving effort is something you can bring every day.”
UNC had another cold game shooting the three, making just eight of those shots all game with a 34.8 percent shooting percentage. Roy Williams self-anoited best three shooters (Johnson, Kenny Williams and Luke Maye) combined to go 5-for-15 from beyond the arc, with freshman guard Coby White struggling to a 1-for-5 mark from downtown.
“The most encouraging thing to me about our team is that we haven't shot the ball really well,” Roy Williams said. “Some of our turnovers are sort of silly but we only had five in the second half – I can live with some turnovers because we play at such a fast pace.”
His senior guard, Kenny Williams, thinks that when the team can nail those threes, it’ll be hard for others to keep up.
“Once we find our rhythm with our jump shots from the three point line, we kind of saw it against Gonzaga, it just makes us a lot more dangerous,” he said.
Of course, the elephant in the room is the fact UNC has only put together a complete game a handful of times against top level teams, defeating Gonzaga and UCLA, but losing to Michigan, Kentucky and Texas. UNC will take on Harvard on Wednesday in their final tuneup, before starting conference play against Pitt on the road next Saturday.
The key moving forward into the New Year for Coach Williams?
“Just getting better. I know that's corny but that's the truth,” he said. “We've played a kind of schedule that made our guys be attentive every game and not just go out there and go through the motions so I'm hoping that helps us."