Tar Heels, Orange Face Off Monday Night

The No. 15 North Carolina men’s basketball team, 16-4 overall and 6-1 in conference play, will square off with the Syracuse Orange, 14-6 on the season and 5-2 in the ACC, Monday night inside the Smith Center.

The Tar Heels will be gunning for their sixth straight victory and will welcome the Orange to Chapel Hill for the first time as a fellow ACC member.

Jim Boeheim’s squad will be looking to rebound from a 66-62 home loss to Miami Saturday afternoon at the Carrier Dome.

The UNC students will be in full voice Monday night in the Dean Dome (Todd Melet)

The UNC students will be in full voice Monday night in the Dean Dome (Todd Melet)

The quick turnaround for both teams could lead to a fatigue factor, but junior forward J.P. Tokoto says he’s not worried about the Tar Heels being ready to roll.

“We have great trainers that are going to help us take care of our bodies the next couple days. Practice is going to be a little lighter at a faster pace – working out some things that we see in film that we need to correct,” Tokoto says.

Coach Williams has been pleading for more toughness out of his players all season long, but he says he’s seen good progress in that department. But still, he’s waiting for a charge, and he’s hoping to see it Monday night.

“We’ve gotten better, we really have. James Michael McAdoo set the tone for everybody. I say one man makes a majority. If you step up, everybody will follow. Today, we had several opportunities to take a charge, and we haven’t got one yet. We’re going to get one next game. I think we’ll get one. If we don’t, we’ll have a ‘take charge’ drill in practice. We’re going to get one before I die,” Coach Williams says.

Those extra effort plays are usually the ones that decide the outcomes in the habitual down-to-the-wire games in the ACC. The tilt against the zone-heavy defense and rangy athleticism of the Orange should be no exception.

Coach Williams, though, says UNC’s defensive play is still not up to his liking, and it’s keeping him from doling out high praise to the big guys like Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks.

Rakeem Christmas hangs on the rim (Orange Athletics)

Rakeem Christmas hangs on the rim (Orange Athletics)

“The defense stinks. When they start playing great defense, then I’ll anoint them also. Brice – what play do you think I liked more than any play Brice made in the game? He dove on the floor,” Coach Williams says. “He didn’t get on Twitter to ask his followers if he should dive on this possession. He dove on the daggum floor and got us an extra possession to score. It was a pretty significant move.”

Syracuse’s senior forward Rakeem Christmas will put UNC’s defense to the test. Christmas is averaging 18 points per outing, tallying 23 points last time out against the Hurricanes.

And with just a day of recovery time for a Carolina squad that has lost a considerable amount of depth due to recent injuries, the ninth meeting between UNC and Syracuse figures to be a compelling contest.

The Tar Heels are Orange are locked up at 4 wins apiece all-time.


UNC Closes Rivalry Week with Sunday Duke Matchup

The No. 12 North Carolina women’s basketball team faces its top rival, No. 15 Duke, in Carmichael Arena Sunday afternoon at 5 p.m.

In facing another in-state rival, N.C. State, UNC is coming off of a nail-biting 67-63 win Thursday in Raleigh. Senior guard Danielle Butts led Carolina in scoring for the first time in her career with 12 points, and fellow senior Latifah Coleman added a career-high seven rebounds.

Down Tobacco Road, Duke suffered a road loss to Boston College Thursday night, which made for their fifth straight road loss this season. They will be looking to snap that streak with Duke’s high scoring duo in Elizabeth Williams and Azura Stevens, who average a combined 43.5 points, 18 rebounds, eight assists, six blocks and five steals per game.

But Carolina has a notable duo of its own. Sophomores Allisha Gray and Stephanie Mavunga make up two of the ACC’s leading scorers to go along with the shot-blocking accolades for Mavunga. Both the Tar Heels and Blue Devils have an ACC record of 4-2.

You can watch the rivalry game on ESPN2 or listen live on 97.9 FM.


Gritty Tar Heels Conquer Improving Seminoles

The No. 15 North Carolina men’s basketball team downed Florida State, 78-74, Saturday afternoon in the Smith Center to improve to 16-4 overall and 6-1 in the ACC.

With the loss, the Seminoles dropped to 10-10 on the season with a 2-5 mark in league play.

***Listen to the story***

In a physical contest featuring a host of long, lean and athletic players, the Tar Heels and Seminoles authored a rigorous clash ferociously waged on both sides of the floor. UNC finished with a slim 36-35 edge in rebounds.

Roy Williams greets Leonard Hamilton (Todd Melet)

Roy Williams greets Leonard Hamilton (Todd Melet)

What’s more, it was a refreshingly clean game with a mere 15 combined turnovers, with the Tar Heels only coughing up the ball on five occasions, a season low.

“Coach [Williams] was very excited about that because he is big in turnovers. For ourselves, we are extremely happy just because we don’t have to run in practice,” junior forward J.P. Tokoto says.

UNC head coach Roy Williams says he was pleased with his team’s effort overall.

“We are good to say the least, we got the ‘W’, it was a weird game at times, but we did some nice things. Our execution on offense at the end, and also defensively, I thought we played well at times,” Coach Williams says.

***Listen to Roy Williams’ postgame remarks***

Marcus Paige and Xavier Rathan-Mayes put on quite a show (Todd Melet)

Marcus Paige and Xavier Rathan-Mayes put on quite a show (Todd Melet)

Balanced scoring was the theme of the day yet again for UNC with four players finishing in double figures. Junior guard Marcus Paige led the way with 19 points while Brice Johnson added in a flashy 18 points of his own to go along with 14 bruising rebounds.

But it was FSU freshman guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes who stole the show, lighting up the Smith Center to the tune of 35 points – the most by any opposing player in Chapel Hill since 2006, when J.J. Redick of Duke accomplished the feat.

“Boy, [Xavier] Rathan-Mayes, we held him scoreless without a field goal for about four or five minutes, but all of a sudden in the last 30 seconds he made three or four of them in a row. He was a difficult guy for us to guard,” Coach Williams says.

Although Coach Williams insists he’s still not satisfied with UNC’s team defense, FSU head coach Leonard Hamilton says the Tar Heels present a formidable challenge.

“North Carolina is tremendous in quickness, speed, athleticism and they’re very talented. I don’t know what else I can say. They’re well-coached, and they executed their defensive game plan very well. They make life miserable for just about everyone who they play,” Coach Hamilton says.

***Click here for the full game photo gallery***

Rathan-Mayes certainly got off to a hot start, scoring the first 7 points for the Seminoles, but Carolina countered with some efficient, quick offense of its own.

Marcus Paige continued his resurgence in play (Todd Melet)

Marcus Paige continued his resurgence in play (Todd Melet)

With 15:38 to play, UNC held a narrow 10-9 lead, but the defensive energy displayed by the Tar Heels would soon overwhelm the offensively-challenged Seminoles.

Johnson and Paige combined to spur the ruthless Carolina attack. The Tar Heels used crisp passing and patient shot selection to take quality shots and more often than not, make them.

Johnson picked up his third foul for an illegal screen at the 5:35 mark in the first half and promptly took a seat on the bench for the remainder of the half for Carolina. With Johnson off the floor, the battling Seminoles were able to whittle away at the Tar Heel lead.

At intermission, UNC sported a 35-31 advantage over visiting FSU. However, it was FSU that was getting the better of the rebounding battle with an 18-14 edge.

Out of the locker room, the intensity was ratcheted up on both sides of the ball with the game hanging in the balance. The athleticism and length, as has become custom of a Leonard Hamilton-coached team at FSU, definitely challenged the Tar Heels.

At the under-16 timeout, UNC maintained a 45-38 lead.

FSU’s athleticism was answered by J.P. Tokoto’s ability to evade defenders and slash his way to the rim. And the junior forward’s emphatic block on the defensive end five minutes into the second half emboldened the Dean Dome crowd.

But with 12:59 to play, an easy basket off the glass by FSU center Boris Bojanovsky trimmed the UNC lead down to a mere three points at 48-45.

Roy Williams coaching up a storm (Todd Melet)

Roy Williams coaching up a storm (Todd Melet)

Both squads relentlessly worked the ball inside down the stretch – picking up fouls or finishing at the rim. Mayes continued to put on a shooting clinic for the Seminoles, knocking down three after three to keep his team in it.

In the end, though, to the delight of the home crowd, it was Carolina that was able to hold on against a young and steadily improving FSU team that showed flashes of potential future success.

UNC sophomore forward Kennedy Meeks says the Tar Heels will do whatever it takes to tough out victories.

“It’s all about toughness. I think that’s what we have really been focusing on since we have players down. Coach has been preaching that in practice. It’s all about picking our teammates up and really grinding it out,” Meeks says.

The Tar Heels face a quick turnaround, back in action Monday night against the Syracuse Orange. The game is scheduled for a 7 p.m. tipoff in the Smith Center.



Surging Tar Heels Take On Struggling Seminoles

The No. 15 North Carolina men’s basketball team, 15-4 on the season and 5-1 in the ACC, returns to the Smith Center Saturday for a 2 p.m. tipoff with 10-9 Florida State.

***Listen to the story***

Despite the mediocre record, the Seminoles are coming in with some momentum, fresh off a gritty road win at Clemson earlier this week.

There are mixed reviews for the Tar Heels. Carolina has won four straight in conference play and is coming off an impressive performance at Wake Forest, where the game was never in doubt.

But the injury bug has hit. Exactly who will be available for active duty Saturday remains a mystery. Nate Britt and Theo Pinson are just the latest duo in a discouragingly long line of Tar Heels getting banged up.

Isaiah Hicks has played spirited defense (Todd Melet)

Isaiah Hicks has played spirited defense (Todd Melet)

Coach Williams says the health of his players is even cutting into valuable practice time.

“We haven’t had very many practices recently. We’ve been trying to milk minutes for Marcus [Paige] and Joel Berry’s not out there. Nate’s [Britt] the only healthy point guard, and he got beat up tonight [Wed.],” Coach Williams says.

But back on the court, Wednesday night’s road effort in Winston-Salem showcased a renewed commitment to aggression in the paint.

Coach Williams says not much has changed since his prediction in the preseason – if the Tar Heels want to be a championship-caliber basketball team, the big guys are going to have to do the heavy lifting.

Marcus Paige is getting the help he's been seeking. (Todd Melet)

Marcus Paige is getting the help he’s been seeking. (Todd Melet)

“I said in the first press conference that we had that our team needed a couple big guys to step up and be big-time players. I’ll still say that right now. From the perimter, we’re okay, but Marcus [Paige] hasn’t played the way I want him to play or the way he wants to play. But if the big guys give us those kind of numbers, that’s pretty good,” Coach Williams says.

Injuries and foul trouble coupled to influence Coach Williams’ decision to incorporate a 2-3 zone against the Deacs. But despite the burgeoning use of the zone, don’t expect the Tar Heels to discard their preferred man-to-man style any time soon.

Junior forward Brice Johnson says his teammates need to do a better job of avoiding fouls by playing smarter.

“We went in the zone. At the same time, you can’t rely on that every game. It’s just something that was in the heat of the moment, and Coach decided to do. From now on, we got to watch our fouls, don’t make silly fouls and execute on the defensive end,” Johnson says.

UNC’s balanced scoring has junior guard Marcus Paige confident about the state of the Tar Heels as they progress deeper into the ACC gauntlet.

“We were able to get a nice, comfortable lead. Justin’s [Jackson] playing better. If Kennedy [Meeks] and Brice play like they did tonight, that’s great. J.P. [Tokoto]’s finding his comfort zone. I made a couple shots. I think we’re starting to hit our stride,” Paige says.

UNC’s opponent this weekend, FSU, could offer some resistance to a potential home steamrolling. The Seminoles, no longer an afterthought after their stirring 2012 ACC Tournament title, will be hungry for another statement in a disappointing season to date.

FSU coach Leonard Hamilton (Chantrant.com)

FSU coach Leonard Hamilton (Chantrant.com)

A pair of junior guards, Aaron Thomas and Montay Brandon, does most of the work for Leonard Hamilton’s Seminoles, who have shown a knack for jumping up and surprising elite teams.

One thing is for sure. The Seminoles should lace up their shoes tight against UNC. Coach Williams wants the Tar Heels to speed up proceedings.

“I like the pace, but again, we’re still not going as fast as I want us to go. If we were better shooters, I’d want us to go even faster, but I like to be more selective with our shot selection. Shooting sixty percent for the game is extremely good. When we shoot the ball like that, I think we’re a really good basketball team if you don’t play stupid sometimes,” Coach Williams says.

UNC leads the all-time series with FSU, 46-12, and has emerged victorious the last four meetings.


The Whole Clique’s Clickin’ for UNC

The atmosphere in the UNC locker room that night was like a funeral. Heads drooped, bodies slumped, and tears were choked back. Everyone in the room struggled to comprehend what was happening.

It was Wednesday, December 3rd, and the Tar Heels had just finished up a disappointing 60-55 loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes. After losing to Butler a week earlier, this marked their second upset loss in eight days, dropping them to 5-2 on the year.

A firestorm of criticism and worries rained down upon the team. Marcus Paige wasn’t vocal enough as a leader. The freshmen didn’t produce enough. And most of all, after a second half in which they gave up 16 offensive rebounds to the Hawkeyes, the big men weren’t tough enough.

Marcus Paige is getting the help he's been seeking. (Todd Melet)

Marcus Paige is getting the help he’s been seeking. (Todd Melet)

The Paige uproar was put to bed weeks ago, with the game winner at home against Louisville, and the Picasso-like masterpiece he painted on the road against N.C. State – not to mention the revelation of the plantar fasciitis he’s been playing with all year long.

Recently, he’s had plenty of help from his teammates, who have all begun to step up to the challenge of quieting the haters. The result has been the team’s most impressive stretch of play all season.

Crazily enough, nobody was quieter after the Iowa game than junior forward Brice Johnson. Foul trouble limited him to just 12 minutes. In the time he was on the floor, Johnson scored two points on seven shot attempts, while only snagging four rebounds. It was easily his worst performance of the season.

Questioned about missing a few layups around the rim that night, an extremely somber and emotional Johnson said to reporters that for the team to improve in the future he needed to “Stop being a baby and just go up there and dunk it.”

It’s time to take notice, because for Brice Johnson and the rest of the Carolina supporting cast, that future is starting to come to fruition. The Tar Heels have won four in a row, sport a 15-4 overall record, and they sit at 5-1 in the brutal ACC, trailing only Virginia and Notre Dame. These guys are the reason why.

Brice taking on Louisville star Montrezl Harrell (Todd Melet)

Brice Johnson taking on Louisville star Montrezl Harrell (Todd Melet)

I mention Brice because his up-and-down play throughout his career has seemingly turned him into a lightning rod for criticism.

His play is often the X-factor when determining whether the Heels win or lose. In each of the losses he’s failed to record more than five rebounds, despite averaging close to eight per game for the season. During the recent winning streak, he’s posted two double-doubles, scored in double figures in every game, and held Louisville’s All-American forward Montrezl Harrell to just nine points and five boards.

Oh yeah, and he’s been dunking the ball…A lot.

Kennedy Meeks has unintentionally given birth to one of Chapel Hill’s newest traditions, with viewers at home tipping their glasses back each time they are reminded by TV announcers that Meeks lost fifty pounds during the offseason. Also, in his spare time he’s managed to lead UNC in rebounding and shooting percentage, forming what could possibly be considered the ACC’s best frontcourt tag-team along with Johnson.

Their play up front has also been supplemented by freshman Justin Jackson, who has started every game but is just now starting to find his groove. His three point shot is falling, he’s getting to the free throw line, and his long, wiry frame has helped him play excellent defense on the wing.  The last two games have been Jackson’s best of the year, scoring 16 and grabbing seven rebounds against Virginia Tech followed by 17 more points Wednesday night at Wake Forest.

Justin Jackson showing his length (Todd Melet)

Justin Jackson showing his length (Todd Melet)

The other freshmen on the roster, point guard Joel Berry and small forward Theo Pinson, are each sidelined with injuries, but have made their mark in recent wins. Berry’s second half three-pointer that ignited the Tar Heels’ comeback victory from 13 down with eight minutes to play against Louisville stands as the most notable.

Sophomore guard Nate Britt has also come off the bench and added some much-needed outside shooting.

Since the beginning of the season, it’s been known that for Carolina to reach the ceiling their preseason #6 ranking created for them, Paige playing outstanding would not be enough. The development of the rest of this young, athletic team, loaded with potential, was always going to be the key.

Johnson has put his big boy pants on, and the rest of Paige’s posse has followed suit.

Two home games against Florida State and Syracuse are next on the schedule for the Heels. If these boys continue to play like they have, the streak will be at six heading into Louisville, with a home contest against undefeated Virginia on the horizon.

Funeral plans have been canceled. Casket talk has been put to rest. This team is very much alive.


UNC WBB Completes Comeback Win Over N.C. State

In a narrow escape, the No. 12 North Carolina’s women basketball team defeated North Carolina State ,67-63, in Reynolds Coliseum Thursday evening. The Tar Heels are now 4-2 in the ACC and 17-3 overall. With the loss, N.C. State fell even to 3-3 in the conference with a 12-7 record.

The start of the game was sluggish for both teams. Carolina committed 3 turnovers in its first few possessions and did not score a field goal until almost four minutes into the game. Both UNC and N.C. State were shooting well below 30 percent from the field.

Unlike the teams’ first meeting in Chapel Hill on Jan. 4, the Tar Heels never made a solid run to gain any hope of clinching a blowout. In fact, N.C. State ran up the score on them, leading by as many as 13, but the Wolfpack ended the first half with a 26-21 edge thanks to poor shooting from the Tar Heels.

“We kept battling hard, so I was happy we were only down by five at halftime,” UNC head coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “But State played really smart and they played well but we had a time out and I challenged the seniors – I have three seniors. And I just said ‘alright you three seniors, this is your team.’ And they went back out there and then man, all of a sudden we got a couple of steals off defensive pressure and it gave us some momentum that we needed.”

Coming out of the halftime break, UNC turned up the intensity on its defense and broke out into a trap that allowed them three steals and two easy buckets for Latifah Coleman and Stephanie Mavunga.

And in the final minutes of fouls and free throws, senior Brittany Rountree sealed the win for UNC, going 8-8 from behind the line in the last 30 seconds. Her 9 points came from free throws alone.

“The free throws, we do a lot of those in practice,” Rountree said. “Coach (Andrew) Calder and Coach Hatchell challenge us so I mean, it just comes with practice. It’s something that I’m used to and my teammates and coaches depend on me so I don’t let them down. I kind of like being in those situations, especially silencing the crowd.”

N.C. State’s offense was led by Len’Nique Brown with 21 points and Dominique Wilson with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Jennifer Mathurin, a 6’1” forward, posed as a double threat to Carolina as a big presence in the post and a scorer from outside. Mathurin shot 3-7 from the three point line.

Wolfpack head coach Wes Moore maintains hopes of keeping an NCAA tournament berth a realistic goal for his team, but he says he knows they’re running out of time.

“The thing about this league is it’s probably the strongest in the country,” Coach Moore said. “If you can get some signature wins, you still have a chance. We’re 3-3, but again we don’t have a signature win or two that we need and we’ve got to find a way to get that.”

The Tar Heels will continue to be that signature team to beat for the remainder of the season. Next up for UNC comes a home court showdown against another rival this weekend. No. 15 Duke, who is now 13-6 on the season and 4-2 in the ACC, travels to Carmichael Sunday at 5 p.m.



‘Road Warrior’ Tar Heels Easily Top Deacs

The No. 15 North Carolina men’s basketball team used a blistering offense to cruise past Wake Forest  , 87-71, inside Joel Coliseum Wednesday evening. The Tar Heels improved to 15-4 overall and 5-1 in ACC play.

With the loss, the Demon Deacons dropped to 9-10 overall and a 1-5 mark in league action.

***Listen to the story***

Kennedy Meeks meets J.P. Tokoto (Todd Melet)

Kennedy Meeks meets J.P. Tokoto (Todd Melet)

The Tar Heels shot a season-high 60 percent from the floor to stifle any hopes for an upset bid. For the first time since the 2007-08 season, Carolina begins the ACC campaign with a 3-0 road record.

But maybe most encouraging for UNC head coach Roy Williams was the physicality displayed  by his team in finishing baskets. The Tar Heels owned a commanding 50-26 edge in points in the paint.

“It was a weird night for us. We were a little low on personnel. We lose Theo [Pinson] and then at the end, lose Nate [Britt] too. Justin [Jackson] I think played the entire second half. I think Marcus [Paige] may have played the entire second half. We needed them to do some things like that. It’s a tough stretch we’re in,” Coach Williams says.

***Listen to Roy Williams’ postgame remarks***

Brice Johnson with a monster dunk (Todd Melet)

Brice Johnson with a monster dunk (Todd Melet)

UNC junior forward Brice Johnson turned in an impressive performance, leading the Tar Heels in scoring with 19 points on a sharp 8-11 shooting. And despite getting into foul trouble early, UNC sophomore forward Kennedy Meeks continued to battle, closing with 16 points and eight rebounds.

Wake Forest’s Codi Miller-McIntyre led all scorers with 20 points and also tossed in six rebounds and six assists.

Not all the news was positive for Carolina. Freshman talent Theo Pinson went down with a bruised left foot and did not return to the game. Nate Britt also got banged up Wednesday night. Pinson and Britt join a laundry list of injured Tar Heels, including Joel Berry, Stilman White and Luke Davis.

The first half established the physical nature of the contest. A bruising battle for the boards resulted in Meeks picking up his fourth foul a few minutes before halftime.

The nip-and-tuck nature of the first 20 minutes of play saw the Tar Heels unable to establish more than a six-point lead at any stage – it just so happened the largest margin came at the halftime buzzer.

Tokoto extends for the slam (Todd Melet)

Tokoto extends for the slam (Todd Melet)

At intermission, the upset-minded Deacons trailed the Tar Heels 40-34.

The Tar Heels must have received a pointed locker room speech from Coach Williams. UNC started the second half on a torrid pace, making seven of the first eight shot attempts to establish a 54-40 advantage with 15:15 to play.

UNC’s offense was in full flow to the finish line, consistently knocking down shots against the Wake Forest zone defense.

Next up for the surging Tar Heels are the Seminoles of Florida State. FSU will visit Chapel Hill for a 2 p.m. tipoff Saturday in the Smith Center.



Carolina Set To Clash With Wake Forest In Winston-Salem

The No. 15 North Carolina men’s basketball team, 14-4 on the season and 4-1 in conference, will aim for its fourth ACC win in a row Wednesday evening inside Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem.

Meanwhile, the upset-minded Wake Forest Demon Deacons, sitting at a 9-9 mark overall and a 1-4 record in league play, will be hoping to topple the Tar Heels.

***Listen to the story***

The Tar Heel road warriors will be searching for a 3-0 start in ACC enemy territory for the first time since the 2007-08 season. That year, Carolina burst out to an 8-0 league road record.

UNC head coach Roy Williams’ teams have historically been strong in hostile environments, sporting a 60-32 ACC road record in 12 seasons under the Hall of Famer.

Justin Jackson will be looking for another solid performance Wednesday night (Todd Melet)

Justin Jackson will be looking for another solid performance Wednesday night (Todd Melet)

But for the Carolina skipper, there’s a lot to work on with this year’s squad. For starters, Coach Williams says the Tar Heels need to play more consistent defensively and make better use of their size advantage to get to the foul line with tough, physical play in the paint.

“We’ve got to get a heck of a lot better on the defensive end of the floor. We knew they [Hokies] were going to shoot a lot of threes. They shot 29, but we shot 16 and 13 in the first half. If you look at the stat sheet in the first half, we shot zero free throws. That’s not the way a North Carolina team is supposed to play,” Coach Williams says.

In an encouraging sign for Carolina, the freshmen appear to be making strides.

Freshman Justin Jackson led UNC in scoring with 16 points last time out, but Jackson says the Tar Heels need to do a better job dictating the pace, which in signature Roy Williams style, means turning the game into a track meet.

“We love to run. We have so many athletic guys who can get out on the wings and run. Whenever we just have to score in the half court, it gets slowed down and can definitely get to you,” Jackson says.

UNC will need to keep an eye on Wake Forest’s junior big man Devin Thomas, who’s averaging 12.9 points and 9.7 rebounds per game.

Devin Thomas is a difference maker for the Deacs (Vebidoo.com)

Devin Thomas is a difference maker for the Deacs (Vebidoo.com)

The battle on the boards should be something to watch for in this contest. The Deacons can hold their own in the rebounding department, ranking 15th in the nation, while the Tar Heels check in at No. 2 with 44.3 rebounds per contest.

But the team’s energy level is what sophomore forward Isaiah Hicks is choosing to focus on, if nothing else, because the coaching staff gets pretty angry with any sort of lethargy.

“It took us a while to get into it. I know that’s what really pisses the coaches off. They talked to us last year about coming out with energy and playing from the beginning – that’s something we have to do every game no matter what,” Hicks says.

The Deacons should be rested and raring to go with over a week of practice time since their last call to action – a heartbreaking overtime loss at Syracuse.

On the other hand, the Tar Heels should be motivated to produce a much cleaner performance following a sloppy, turnover-filled battle with Virginia Tech Sunday that had Coach Williams none too pleased.

“I don’t think we’re a stupid team, but every team plays stupid sometimes,” Coach Williams says.

UNC leads the all-time series with Wake Forest 156-66, but the Demon Deacons surprised the Tar Heels just last year with a 73-67 victory in the comfy confines of Joel Coliseum – always a tricky place to play.


Countdown to First Pitch: Trent Thornton

Over the past two seasons for UNC baseball, Trent Thornton has spent his time clearly establishing himself as the ace of the pitching staff.  With the 2015 opener set for Feb. 13 against Seton Hall, the junior right-hander gives us an inside look into his life both on and off the diamond as we get you prepared for another run at the College World Series with our Countdown to First Pitch preview series.

Coming off a sophomore campaign in which he led all Tar Heel starters in wins, strikeouts, and ERA, Trent has definitely caught the eyes of major league scouts. These accomplishments were enough to earn him 3rd team preseason All-American honors for 2015, along with reliever Reilly Hovis.

This success came after a freshman season in 2013 where he started the year in the bullpen. But Trent ascended the ranks in no time, starting against LSU in the College World Series; a moment he names as the highlight of his career to this point.

(Photo courtesy of News & Observer)

Trent icing his arm during the 2013 College World Series. (News & Observer)

Discussing his pro potential, Trent says “it’s always been a dream to get drafted and make it to the major leagues, but you can’t look too far ahead into the future. You got to focus on what you have today. That’s something I’ve really focused on, is taking it day by day, because you never know what can happen.”

While he wouldn’t commit to any future plans, he did list the Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates as two teams he’s always grown up wanting to play for.

Sports is a crazy world where a bad season or a freak injury can change an athlete’s life dramatically.

With this in mind, Thornton, a business major, says that “[he’s] actually thought about this a lot lately,” adding that if something happened where he wasn’t able to play professionally “[he’d] really like to stay in the game of baseball some way, coaching could be an option, but I’d also really like to start my own business.”

Off the field, Trent enjoys spending time with his roommates, and teammates, Korey Dunbar, Alex Raburn, and Taylore Cherry. As for his hobbies, you can include pretty much anything involved with the outdoors, saying “I like to keep pretty busy, I like to stay outside, I like to fish, play ultimate Frisbee, disc golf, and golf. If it’s outside I’m normally doing something there.”

Never a fun sight for opposing hitters. (UNC Athletics)

His personality is one that’s very laid back, but don’t let that fool you. Trent is serious about putting in the work it takes in order to perform at the highest level. This balance has helped Thornton and head coach Mike Fox form a tight bond since the righty’s arrival in Chapel Hill.

“I think Coach Fox is a great coach and I think we have a very good relationship. I like to joke around with him a lot, and I have a pretty good sense of humor I’d say. I like to put a smile on his face any way I can,” Trent says.

It takes a special kind of competitive fire to be the best at what you do, and in the case of UNC’s star pitcher, that’s definitely an accurate assessment.

Asked what pitch he would throw if he was one out away from a perfect game, with a full count, and Derek Jeter (in his prime) at the plate, Trent didn’t hesitate with his answer.

“I’d go with the fastball, just try and blow it by him up and in or low and away. It’s a bulldog mentality. I go out there with a chip on my shoulder every day like I have something to prove.”

2014 ended on a sour note for the Tar Heels, falling in the first round of the NCAA tournament behind a pair of losses to Long Beach State – this after previously taking six trips to Omaha for the College World Series since 2006.

Bringing the fastball, pretending Derek Jeter is batting. (UNC Athletics)

Bringing the fastball, pretending Derek Jeter is batting. (UNC Athletics)

Last season was out of character, but it was certainly not an indictment of the talent on this year’s baseball team.  They see no reason not to be optimistic.

“There’s a big difference between last year’s team and this year’s team,” Trent says, “We’ve got a lot of good freshmen that came in this year, and I think we’ve got a lot to prove, but we can definitely compete in, and probably win the ACC. We’re expecting a lot out of this team.”

When it comes to which game he’s most excited about pitching in, it was clear that the local rivalry is still burning strong among players, quickly replying “NC State, absolutely.”

Opening day is right around the corner, folks, and when it gets here, number 31 will be on the mound. Seton Hall better be ready, as the self-described “bulldog” is better than ever, and will be bringing his best stuff.

As a matter of fact, the entire ACC might want to have their players go ahead and start taking notes.

Trent Thornton is coming for them – probably with the fastball high and tight.


UNC Officially Names Gene Chizik D-Coordinator

After weeks of speculation surrounding former Auburn national championship-winning head coach Gene Chizik, the vetting process is now over.

UNC head football coach Larry Fedora announced Monday the latest addition to his coaching staff. Coach Chizik will attempt to resurrect a defense that ranked near the bottom of the NCAA in most statistical categories last season.

***Full statement from UNC***

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – University of North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora announced Monday that Gene Chizik has been hired as the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinator. Chizik, who won national championships at Auburn and Texas, has long been considered one of the brightest defensive coaches in college football and is an experienced leader who will work with Fedora to achieve excellence on and off the field.

Chizik, 53, served as head coach at Auburn from 2009-12 and led the Tigers to three bowl victories, including the 2011 BCS title game, which followed an undefeated 2010 season. Previously, he was the defensive coordinator at Texas under Mack Brown when the Longhorns captured the 2005 national championship.

Chizik also was Auburn’s defensive coordinator from 2002-04 where he built one of the nation’s most dominating defenses. In 2004, he earned the Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in the country when Auburn went 13-0, won the Southeastern Conference and finished No. 2 in both national polls.

Since leaving Auburn in 2012, Chizik has served as an analyst for ESPN, working most recently with the SEC Network. He also worked as a college football analyst with Sirius/XM radio.

“Throughout the hiring process, I worked closely with athletic director Bubba Cunningham to invest in someone who believes in the mission of the University and shares our vision of providing an outstanding experience to the student-athletes,” said Fedora. “Gene Chizik believes in competing at the highest level both on and off the field and is another highly regarded leader for our program.”

“I’m thrilled to join Coach Fedora’s staff and I appreciate the trust he and athletic director Bubba Cunningham have in me,” said Chizik. “It is a tremendous opportunity to coach at one of the most prestigious Universities in the country and live in Chapel Hill. I’m committed to the student-athlete experience they expect at Carolina, and look forward to developing our players into the best they can be in all areas of their lives.”

As head coach at Auburn, Chizik had an Academic Progress Rate (APR) of 970 or above in three of his four seasons, including a 985 in his third year and a 978 in his final season. APR is a team-based metric that accounts for the eligibility and retention of each student-athlete, each term. The highest score attainable is 1000.

“Academic success is one of the highest priorities for our team and we are committed to bringing in coaches and staff who value and protect our academic integrity,” said Fedora.

Chizik has also been heavily involved in college football reforms. Just this past August, the NCAA invited him to serve on a 12-person committee tasked with examining the recruiting culture in college football and evaluating the current national letter of intent signing dates. The committee was organized in conjunction with the NCAA and reported to the Collegiate Commissioners Association.

Throughout his career, Chizik’s players have earned several national awards, including the Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Player of the Year Award, Lombardi Award and Thorpe Award.

Chizik was head coach at Iowa State from 2007-08. He also coached previously at Clemson, Middle Tennessee State and Central Florida.

Chizik earned his B.A. degree in education from Florida in 1985 and his M.A. in guidance and counseling from Clemson in 1991.

A Clearwater, Fla., native, Chizik and his wife, Jonna, have identical twin daughters, Landry Grace and Kennedy Danielle, and a son, Cally.