Deep reserves help Berry-less Tar Heels survive Davidson upset bid

Luke Maye and Stilman White played unexpectedly large roles and Justin Jackson scored 27 points to lead UNC to an uninspired 83-74 victory on Wednesday

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
North Carolina forward Justin Jackson (44)

CHAPEL HILL — Roy Williams said he’s had a lot of fun coaching his North Carolina basketball team “at certain times” this season. Wednesday night was not one of those times. Playing without star point guard Joel Berry, who is sidelined with a sprained left ankle, the seventh-ranked Tar Heels were a sloppy, listless bunch against Davidson at the Smith Center. Things got so bad after the opening few minutes that Williams resorted to a tried-and-true old tactic by unceremoniously yanking all five of his starters. The ploy worked as the “Blue” team led by reserves Luke Maye and Stilman White came and finally brought some life to their team. And yet, it still took a 27-point effort from Justin Jackson and some clutch free throw shooting down the stretch for UNC to escape the Wildcats’ upset bid with an 83-74 victory. “It was as frustrating as I can ever remember, to be honest with you, but we won,” Williams said afterward. “We just did some not very intelligent things. I’ve loved coaching this team. Sometimes we’ve been really sharp, really into it. I think we thought it was going to be easy. We played them here last year and got off to a great start beat them pretty easily, In my opinion, we weren’t ready to play.” It was an unusual night right from the start, which was delayed momentarily by a strange green material falling from the Smith Center rafters just after the opening tip. But at least something was falling for the Tar Heels during the early going. On the court, UNC missed its first five shots and didn’t score until the first of Jackson’s seven 3-pointers four minutes in. After Davidson’s Jack Gibbs answered Jackson’s basket with a trey of his own to put the Wildcats up 10-3, Williams decided he’d seen enough. He sent Maye, freshmen Tony Bradley, Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods along with the seldom-used White out onto the court in hopes of at least bringing a little energy to the floor. The group did more than that. With Maye doing most of the offensive damage, the replacement Tar Heels ran off 10 straight points to turn the seven-point deficit into a 13-10 lead. Maye continued to be his team’s best player for the remainder of the period, scoring a career-high 10 points by halftime. He also finished the game with personal best totals of six rebounds and three steals before running into foul trouble. “Coach always preaches play hard and do what he says,” Maye said. “That’s what we were trying to do, just (get) movement and get people open shots. “I was able to knock a few shot down early and that gave me a little confidence and I just continued to build on that the rest of the game.” While Maye was providing an unexpected offensive spark, regulars Nate Britt, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks struggled mightily. Britt, in particular, had a tough time of things while starting in Berry’s place. Although the senior point guard did finish with a team-leading six assists, he missed all eight of his field goal attempts while committing three turnovers in his 31 minutes. At the other end of the court, his man Gibbs — one of the nation’s top scorers at 23.3 points per game, went off for 30 points. Britt’s struggles amplified just how important Berry is to the Tar Heels. Berry leads the team in assists and steals while ranking second in scoring. He is also UNC’s defensive catalyst off of whom the rest of the team feeds.Equally significant was ineffective performance performance by Woods that suggested the highly touted freshman is not yet ready to play a major role at the point. Even in a time of necessity. As was the case in 2012, White was there to step into the breach. Seeing his most action since a celebrated fill-in role in the Elite Eight against Kansas five years ago, the redshirt senior made all six of his free throws, didn’t commit a turnover and contributed some energetic defense during his important 15-minute stint. It was the kind of performance Jackson said some of his fellow starters should take to heart. “For me coming into the game, I knew I was going to have to step up more because (Berry) was out and he’s a big chunk of our offense, defense, everything,” Jackson said. “But I feel like some guys just didn’t come out to play. I made my mistakes, for sure, but some guys just came out, lollygagged and went through the motions. We have to get better at that.”