CHAPEL HILL — After a balky performance in its most recent game, on Dec. 5 against UNC Wilmington, Roy Williams insisted that his North Carolina basketball team really is a good shooting team.
Even though they’d yet to show it.
“One of these game we’re going to make a lot of shots,” he said. “I hope it’s in my lifetime.”
As it turns out, Williams lived long enough to see his 14th-ranked Tar Heels live up to his expectations. And they couldn’t have picked a better time for it to happen.
Playing for the first time in 10 days, UNC shot 54 percent from the floor, went 13 of 25 from beyond the 3-point arc and got big performances from veterans Cam Johnson, Luke Maye and Seventh Woods in rolling to an impressive 103-90 win against No. 4 Gonzaga at the Smith Center.
“We made a bunch of shots,” Williams said after the Tar Heels posted their second-highest scoring performance ever against a top five opponent. “I’ve been telling Cam and Kenny (Williams) and Luke that ‘you guys our best shooters. How about trying to be our best makers?’”
At least two of those three were just that Saturday.
Johnson made six of his eight 3-pointers, including a 30-foot dagger as the shot clock expired to give UNC an insurmountable 17-point lead late in the second half. He finished with 25 points, while his six treys tied a career high that he set at the Smith Center while still playing for Pittsburgh in 2017.
Maye made only one from distance, but hit on 6 of 10 overall on his way to a 20-point, 16-rebound performance that was by far his best since the season opener at Wofford.
Although Williams still struggled with his shot, going 3 of 8 overall and 1 of 4 on 3-pointers, Woods came off the bench to pick up the slack.
The oft-injured junior, who has yet to live up to his pre-UNC hype, put together his second strong game in a row. His 14-point effort included a spurt of eight straight points to finish the first half, allowing the Tar Heels to turn an eight-point lead into a much more significant 53-39 cushion at the break.
“I mean, it was the biggest game of the season, so we had to play our best,” Woods said. “Guys were hyped up before the game. Guys got shots up. We had a point to make this game, here. We lost two games (to ranked opponents) Texas and Michigan. We just wanted to show guys we can compete at the highest level.”
Feeding off a sellout crowd Roy Williams called the best he’s seen for a nonconference December game, UNC atoned for those earlier losses while re-establishing itself as a legitimate ACC and national championship contender.
And there was still plenty of room left for improvement.
The Tar Heels (8-2) turned the ball over 23 times, leading to 29 Gonzaga points and they played defense only sporadically in allowing the Bulldogs (9-2) to shoot almost 51 percent from the floor.
“We guarded every now and then, but for the most part we have to do a heck of a lot better job on the defensive end,” Williams said. “It’s been our problem and it’s still our problem, but to night shots went in and made up for it.”
The Tar Heels also dominated the boards on both ends of the floor, outrebounding Gonzaga 42-21 and outscoring the former top ranked team by an incredible 27-0 margin on second chance points. It’s a disparity that took sophomore big man Garrison Brooks by surprise when he was told about it after the game.
“Really?” said Brooks, who contributed a quiet nine points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots in 23 productive minutes. “That’s outstanding.
“This was one of our big moments. We’re going to be able to look back and say we got a lot better this game.”
It was a lightbulb moment Johnson said he felt coming before the 2017 national championship game rematch ever began.
“In shootaround, I was going around saying ‘This is our day. This is our day,’” the graduate forward said. “We’ve been slumping for nine games now. You’d think we’d break through one game and this was it. So we’re capable of it.
“We make shots in practice, we make shots all day long. We’ve got guys that can really shoot the ball and today was the day we made a couple.”