CHAPEL HILL — If any tangible conclusions can be made from North Carolina’s trip to the Hall of Fame Tipoff tournament in Connecticut last weekend, it’s that the Tar Heels are still very much a work in progress.
If Tuesday’s follow-up performance against UNC Asheville at Smith Center is any indication, that progress isn’t going to happen overnight.
UNC won the game 72-53 to snap the first two-game losing streak of coach Hubert Davis’ tenure and showed improvement in several areas. But after giving up 15 offensive rebounds, committing 18 turnovers and allowing the Bulldogs to hang around deep into the second half, it’s clear that there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“We’ve got to get better, plain and simple,” Oklahoma graduate transfer Brady Manek bluntly. “I don’t know what it is, but we’ve got to play better. That’s about it. We should have beat them by a lot more than we did.”
For a time, it appeared as if the Tar Heels would do what UAB and Chattanooga had already done this season by putting a 25-plus hurting on the Bulldogs from the Big South Conference.
They held UNCA to just 27.3% shooting and used a stretch of seven straight stops early in the game to open up a quick double-digit lead. The margin grew to as many as 20 at 35-15 on a Dawson Garcia 3-pointer with 5:51 remaining in the half.
At that point, though, the Tar Heels took their foot off the accelerator, scoring only once more before the break. And things didn’t improve much when play resumed.
UNC (4-2) committed seven turnovers in nine early second-half possessions, allowing the Bulldogs to put together a 12-4 run that helped them pull to within seven at 45-38.
“We can’t let teams like that stick around because when we play teams that are going to do that to us, we’ve got to respond and play,” said Manek, who finished with eight points and nine rebounds off the bench. “We got lit up this weekend (in lopsided losses to Purdue and Tennessee). That was our third, fourth straight game we were down at halftime. You can’t be down to teams like that. They’ll make you pay for it.
“To put it on tonight, we’ve got to be up more. We’ve got to put it on them more and let them feel how we felt last weekend. We’ve got to play better for 40 minutes, not just the start of the game.”
The Tar Heels did, at least, finish strong. For that, they can thank Armando Bacot.
The junior big man scored nine straight points over a two-minute span to help his team stretch its lead back out and eventually put UNCA away.
Bacot finished with 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting with seven rebounds. RJ Davis was the only other UNC player scoring in double figures with 12, while Leaky Black had nine points and 11 boards.
Jamon Battle led UNCA with 19 points.
“I feel like if I catch it in the post I’m going to score on anybody,” Bacot said. “This whole game I wanted to assert my dominance. I’ve been shooting a pretty good percentage, so I guess when I get the ball good things happen. That’s something Coach emphasized and the players too, just me getting the ball more and being even more aggressive.”
Bacot’s assertiveness in the paint helped UNC overcome a third straight game in which it recorded more turnovers (18) than assists (15).
It also helped that the opposition had trouble putting the ball in the basket. The Bulldogs were 18 of 68 from the floor and 7 of 37 from 3-point range. UNC, by contrast, had the same number of treys on 23 fewer attempts.
“Over the weekend against Purdue and Tennessee, I felt we didn’t play defense like we can play defense,” Hubert Davis said, adding that his team “took offense” to the fact that those two opponents shot 55% from the field and combined to put up more than 90 points in the paint. “So tonight to hold a team to 26%, I’m really encouraged by that and I’m going to focus on the positive. … I thought we were dialed in defensively.”
While the Tar Heels’ defensive effort was better than it was in Connecticut, UNCA helped out a lot by missing a multitude of open shots. That notwithstanding, Tuesday’s performance clearly showed progress.
“As good as we are, we’re not that experienced,” Davis said. “I think they were a little shocked by what happened this weekend, in a good way. It’s going to hold us accountable and moved us in the right direction today.
“It’s only Game 6. Very few teams are settled right now, but we’re improving. I like where our team is and where our team is going to be at the end of the year.”