CHAPEL HILL — Roy Williams was admittedly nervous going into North Carolina’s season opening basketball game against Northern Iowa on Friday.
It’s a condition that only got worse when the Hall of Fame coach learned that grad transfer Cameron Johnson wouldn’t be available because of a strained neck suffered in practice earlier in the week.
Williams need not have worried, though.
On this one night, at least, all the questions that surrounded the Tar Heels were answered in a positive manner as they rolled to an 86-69 win at Smith Center.
Inexperienced point guards Jalek Felton and Seventh Woods filled in for injured star Joel Berry like veterans, a trio of freshman big men combined for 27 points and 15 rebounds, and Luke Maye put on a performance worthy of those guys whose jerseys hang proudly in the rafters, as UNC began the defense of its national championship in impressive fashion.
“There was a lot of things to like and a lot of things we can work on,” a much more relaxed Williams said afterward. “So it was a coach’s dream.”
Williams couldn’t have drawn up a better start, especially under the circumstances with arguably his two best players watching the season’s first game from the bench.
While Johnson was nursing his sore neck, last year’s Final Four MVP Berry is still recovering from a broken right hand suffered when he punched a door after losing a video game to teammate Theo Pinson.
Berry’s absence was barely noticed thanks to the play of his young understudies.
Felton, the nephew of former UNC national champion Raymond Felton, got the start and played 22 minutes, contributing five points, an assist and two steals. Woods, a sophomore who struggled in limited duty a year ago, was even better with nine points, two assists and two steals in 18 minutes.
With Pinson and Kenny Williams also pitching in with five assists each, the Tar Heels’ offense flowed well from start to finish, with the exception of momentary lulls at the start of both halves. They finished the night at an even 50 percent from the floor as a team (31 of 62) with 20 assists and just seven turnovers — three of which came on offensive foul calls.
“I’m really proud of them,” Pinson said. “They took advantage of the moment. You couldn’t tell if they were nervous or not. They just went out there and played basketball.”
The same can be said for the low post trio of Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley and Brandon Huffman, who more than held their own on both ends of the court in their first college game.
Garrison, the most advanced of the three, got off to a blazing start by scoring six of his team’s first nine points — on a putback, a nice post move and two free throws. He finished with 14 points and six rebounds in just 18 minutes.
Manley also played well, going 3 of 4 from the field on his way to nine points and eight rebounds in 14 minutes. Huffman saw less playing time than his classmates, but showed flashes of promise with a pair of dunks and a rebound in nine minutes.
Early in the preseason Williams joked that the combined attributes of his freshman bigs still wouldn’t add up to one good player.
Though he wasn’t ready to change his opinion of the trio yet after just one good game, he did acknowledge that “they’re getting better.”
And then there’s Maye.
A former walk-on who burst into prominence during last season’s NCAA tournament regional, the 6-foot-8 junior put together a career effort in which he made all six of his second half shots, scored 26 points and added 10 rebounds.
“I’ve always had confidence in myself,” Maye said. “Knowing that Cam and Joel were not out there, there were more shots to be had. When they come back I’m going to continue to stay aggressive, and that’s just going to make our team better offensively and defensively.”
Even without them, the Tar Heels are off to strong start — better, perhaps, than even they could have imagined.
“Honestly, I didn’t know how we were going to play,” Pinson said. “We were prepared to play without Joel, but we didn’t know Cam was going to be out too. But like we always say, next man up. I was really proud of everybody. It was a team effort, as you could see, and I’m proud of everybody.”