Second half surge a Christmas wish come true for UNCs Williams

Unhappy with the way his Tar Heels in general and center Kennedy Meeks in particular played defense in the first half against Northern Iowa on Wednesday, coach Roy Williams sent out a quick request to Santa for a better effort over the final 20 minutes

Rob Kinnan—USA Today Sports
Dec 21

CHAPEL HILL — Roy Williams’ Christmas wish came true a few days early. Unhappy with the way his North Carolina basketball team in general and center Kennedy Meeks in particular were playing defense in the first half of Wednesday’s game against Northern Iowa, the Hall of Fame coach sent out a quick request to Santa for a better effort over the final 20 minutes. Apparently, the big man in red came through as Meeks and his teammates roared into a four-day holiday break with an 85-42 domination of the Panthers at the Smith Center. Meeks hit for team-leading totals of 18 points and eight rebounds while dominating on the defensive end of the floor to lead an effort that saw the Tar Heels outscore their opponent by a whopping 52-16 margin in the second half. “My Christmas wish at halftime was to play better defense and I think we did,” said Williams, whose team held Northern Iowa (5-6) to just 25.9 percent shooting after the break. “I thought Kennedy Meeks was the difference.” It didn’t start out that way. Although the 6-foot-10 senior was as offensively assertive as he’s been since UNC (11-2) returned from the Maui Invitational over Thanksgiving, going to the free throw line three times over the first six minutes, his play at the other end of the court left a lot to be desired. After Northern Iowa’s Klint Carlson beat him to the basket on three straight possessions midway through the half, Williams angrily summoned him to the bench and kept him there for the remainder of the period. The coach then had a pointed discussion with his sometimes enigmatic big man in the locker room. Williams didn’t go into specifics about what he said — “I told him things that if I told you, I’d have to kill you” — but according to Meeks, it’s nothing he hadn’t heard before. “I’ve been here for four years, so I’m kind of used to it,” Meeks said, who added that the difference in his second half play was “just me trying to be more assertive, trying to flat out defend the best I could. “It’s all about those opportunities and taking advantage of it. I feel like the last couple of games I really haven’t taken advantage of them as much as I could have.” Meeks wasn’t the only one that did a better job of making the most of his chances. Fellow big Isaiah Hicks, who has played 17 or fewer minutes in each of UNC’s previous three games because of persistent foul trouble, also gave a better accounting of himself in the second half. He still played only 22 minutes after sitting for most of the first half with two fouls, but he finished with 11 points and five rebounds, going 5 of 8 from the floor — including a crowd-pleasing dunk in which he posterized Northern Iowa defender Juwan McCloud. “Everybody’s been asking me when they going to see Isaiah actually play,” Hicks said. “First I’ve got to stay out of foul trouble so I can stay in the game and help the team out.” Not only were Meeks and Hicks dominant on the defensive end in the second half, their aggressive play in the paint and on the boards offensively helped open things up for their teammates on the perimeter. Justin Jackson had more room to slash to the basket on his way to 12 points while Joel Berry hit three 3-pointers and finished with 11 points. Kenny Williams only made one basket, but he handed out a team-leading five assists, all but one of which came in the second half. “When we get the ball down low and Kennedy is doing what he did tonight, that’s always a plus for us,” Berry said. “UNI is a good team, but later down the road with ACC play coming up, if we can get that from Kennedy that will be great.”