UNC beats Monmouth in final nonconference hoop tuneup

Ready or not, the North Carolina basketball team is about to begin the ACC portion of its 2016-17 schedule. The question is, how ready for the challenge are the Tar Heels?

Rob Kinnan—USA Today Sports
Dec 21

CHAPEL HILL — Ready or not, the North Carolina basketball team is about to begin the ACC portion of its 2016-17 schedule. The question is, how ready for the challenge are the Tar Heels? They showed flashes of how good they can be in Wednesday’s 102-74 rout of Monmouth at the Smith Center, a game in which Justin Jackson hit for 28 points and Kennedy Meeks posted his first double-double since the day before Thanksgiving. But they also suffered through some lapses in concentration while committing 17 turnovers and getting outscored 14-4 on fastbreak points. It was the kind of inconsistent performance that makes UNC something of a wild card as it heads into its conference opener at Clemson on Saturday. Not even coach Roy Williams is quite sure what to expect from his 12-2 team. “I was a lot more comfortable after the second half of our last game,” Williams said of the Tar Heels’ 85-42 victory against Northern Iowa a week earlier. “Against Northern Iowa, I thought we did some good things. I don’t feel quite as good right now. Whether I like it or not, it’s here.” In UNC’s defense, it had practiced only twice in the week since the Northern Iowa game because of the Christmas break. Star point guard Joel Berry was also slowed by an illness that forced to him get two IVs of fluids earlier in the day and contributed to his missing all four of his field goal attempts.Not all of the Tar Heels’ stumbles, however, can be explained away by either rust or diminished physical capacity. Their first letdown came after building a 48-29 lead just before halftime, when they allowed the Hawks (10-3) hit four straight 3-pointers to cut the margin down to single digits at the break. Then after Meeks and fellow big man Isaiah Hicks reestablished the cushion with a dominant start to the second half, UNC’s concentration waned again — to the point that Williams twice subbed out all five players to show his displeasure with his starters. It wasn’t until Monmouth coach and former Tar Heels point guard King Rice and his team had a meltdown of their own by getting called for three technical fouls in a 55-second span midway through the period, that UNC finally pulled away for good. “We can be great if we cut out the little marginal stuff, cut out the stuff that we do like turnovers and continue to play hard,” said Hicks, who finished with 15 points and nine rebounds. “Today we came out strong. That’s what you have to do all the time, but there’s some moments where we lacked on defense. We’ve got to play all 40 minutes. You can’t take breaks.” Those breaks aside, the Tar Heels did have plenty of reasons for optimism as they take the jump into conference play. Justin Jackson, in particular, is playing the the best basketball of his college career. The junior forward, who leads the team in scoring at just under 17 points per game, hit six of his nine 3-point attempts on his way to 28 points. Jackson also contributed five assists and five rebounds while rapidly stepping forward as the Tar Heels’ go-to guy on offense. “I knew coming into the season that there would be a little more put on myself,” he said. “I just tried to prepare myself before the season and even during the season and then try to take advantage (of the preparation) during the games.” Another Tar Heel trending in the right direction is Meeks. Just as he did against Northern Iowa, the senior center established himself on the low post early by scoring nine of his team’s first 13 points. He ended up with 17 points, 12 rebounds and three assists in the kind of performance UNC will need against some of the top big men it will face in ACC play. “Everyone wants to come out aggressive and demanding and these last few games fell in my favor,” Meeks said. “That’s what I want to do every game, hitting the offensive glass, trying to get post establishment. I hope to continue that through ACC play.” Williams would like to see that, too, along with some better defense, ball security and a consistency in his team’s effort. “We’ve got to start playing a heck of a lot better,” he said, “because it’s a different ballgame now.”