Experimental Tar Heels find right combination to hold off Bucknell

With coach Roy Williams using numerous lineups, UNC overcame some nervous moments to pull away for a 93-81 victory

UNC's Luke Maye and Joel Berry defend as Bucknell's Zach Thomas hits the floor during Wednesday's game at Smith Center (Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports)

CHAPEL HILL — With 10 available players and five positions on the floor to fill, Roy Williams had 252 possible lineup combinations from which to choose Wednesday.

He didn’t use all of them during North Carolina’s basketball game against Bucknell at Smith Center.

But it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

The Hall of Fame coach juggled players in and out of the lineup against the Bison, switching from big to small with several variations in between as he worked to get a feel for a roster that’s been in a constant state of flux almost since the start of preseason practice.

The experimentation, complicated by some unexpected foul trouble, helped lead to some nervous moments when Bucknell pulled to within one midway through the second half. But the Tar Heels, in all their forms, were able to withstand the challenge to win 93-81 for Williams’ 400th victory since returning to his alma mater in 2003.

“I lost track,” freshman center Sterling Manley said when asked if he remembered how many different combinations he was a part of during his 17 productive minutes off the bench. “But it’s good, because if you’re playing with the same guys all the time and he puts somebody else in, it can throw you off. And he’s trying to get a feel for who he can trust.

“If he can trust you, you’re going to be on the court. If you can’t remember the plays, you’re not running back on defense, things like that, he’s not going to keep you out there.”

The learning curve for both the players and their coach is greater than usual with this UNC team because of the five first-year scholarship players that have been added to the roster.

Injuries have only complicated the situation.

First it was Final Four MVP Joel Berry who missed four weeks and last Friday’s season opener against Northern Iowa with a broken hand. Then, just as Berry returned to action, the Tar Heels lost graduate transfer forward Cameron Johnson to a torn meniscus in his left knee. He underwent surgery to repair the damage earlier in the day Wednesday.

Sophomore guard Brandon Robinson also missed the Bucknell game with a sore shoulder, forcing Williams to do a little improvising on the fly.

At times, he used a traditional alignment of a center, two forwards and two guards. Other times, he had 6-foot-8 Luke Maye playing in the low post alongside four small teammates. He even went big a few times with both the 6-11 Manley and 6-9 freshman Garrison Brooks on the court at the same time.

In all, nine Tar Heels logged double figure minutes with six of them contributing eight or more points to a winning effort that was anything but a thing of beauty.

“There hasn’t been a lot of time to think and see what’s going on,” Williams said of Johnson’s injury and the effect it might have on his substitution pattern. “Tonight it was just going by the seat of my pants who was going to sub where, because with Cam, we also had B-Rob out, which means we had only one true (small forward) on the team, and that’s Theo (Pinson).”

Pinson did his part to help keep things together by scoring a career-high 19 points to go along with six assists and five rebounds. Maye also put forth another strong effort with 20 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two blocks while shuffling back and forth between several positions, while Manley was a revelation while contributing a double-double of 16 points and 11 rebounds in just 17 minutes.

As for Berry, he did record six assists and two steals while going 5 of 6 from the free throw line in his 30-minute season debut. But after making his first shot of the night, a wide-open 3-pointer from the top of the circle in game’s second minute, he proceeded to miss his next 10 attempts — four of which were blocked by Bucknell defenders.

“I haven’t used my (right) hand in about three weeks, so it was good to just get back out there on the court and get some run in,” Berry said. “Some of the shots I missed tonight, I’ll eventually get my rhythm back.”

Berry wasn’t the only one out of sync at times for the Tar Heels, who opened up a 16-point lead late in the first half only to allow the Bison (0-3) to cut the margin to 50-41 at the break.

Fueled by 11 3-pointers and an early second-half UNC lull, Bucknell got to within 59-58 with 12:38 remaining and had an opportunity to take the lead before Maye hit a pair of free throws and a 3-pointer to finally restore order.

“We were kind of struggling defensively and he put a couple of lineups out there just to test us and see how we’d react,” Maye said of his coach. “We need to continue to get better, but I think we did a lot of good things that we can build on. We pulled out a win. That’s the most important thing.”