Following his team’s lackluster 73-71 victory in the Smith Center over the Tennessee Volunteers on Sunday, UNC head men’s basketball coach Roy Williams wasted no time expressing his continued frustrations with how the Tar Heels have played since point guard Joel Berry went down with a sprained ankle.
Tennessee entered Sunday with one of the youngest teams in the nation and a roster consisting of just one player taller than 6-foot-7. This is one of the main reasons the Volunteers were picked to finish 12th in the SEC during the preseason.
You wouldn’t have been able to tell any of that with the way the visitors came out shooting against the Tar Heels.
As UNC’s half-court offense struggled to find its rhythm yet again, Tennessee sprinted out to a 15-point lead in the first half by shooting over 65 percent.
This got the crowd at the Dean Dome as loud and animated as they’ve been all season.
Even though UNC received a significant momentum boost that helped it cut into Tennessee’s lead, the Tar Heels failed to move ahead on the scoreboard until Justin Jackson weaved through two defenders and banked in a layup with just over two minutes to play.
Freshman Brandon Robinson tipped in a Nate Britt jumper not long after, and the Tar Heels rewarded their coach with a victory pulled straight out of thin air.
“It’s pretty easy to figure out,” Williams told reporters. “If Indiana was my 1,000th game [as a head coach], then this was 1,003.
“It’s the luckiest I’ve ever been in 1,003 games,” the coach added. “That’s flat-out the bottom-line truth.”
Sophomore guard Kenny Williams led UNC with 12 points, and was one of just three Tar Heels to reach double figures in this, the second straight outing where the team has shot less than 40 percent from the floor.
Britt added 11 points and seven assists in place of Berry—not to mention a clutch layup and a handful of big-time steals down the stretch that made up for his 4-for-14 shooting performance.
Perhaps the most important player for the Tar Heels against Tennessee, however, was freshman big man Tony Bradley.
Bradley’s 10 points and 10 rebounds came in just 20 minutes of action, as his prowess on the offensive glass helped provide a stagnant offense with much-needed scoring midway through the second half.
Then Bradley made the biggest play of the game when he used his 7-foot-5 wingspan to block Tennessee’s final shot attempt with just seconds remaining.
“It happened pretty fast,” Bradley said of the final block. “I just knew I needed to help off of my man because the point guard was dribbling toward me, kind of fast.
“I knew to try and help, so I put my hand up,” he continued. “The ball hit my hand. Then I got the rebound.”
With Jackson held to just seven points on 3-of-15 shooting, Isaiah Hicks fouling out in just 14 minutes and Kennedy Meeks struggling mightily himself, UNC seemed at times like it was without more than just the injured Berry and Theo Pinson.
Walk-on guard Stilman White continued to see meaningful minutes, while freshmen like Bradley, Robinson and Seventh Woods each added significant contributions.
It was obviously not the same UNC team that is expected to contend for championships in March, but that doesn’t mean Williams wants to hear any excuses.
“It’s not ‘We don’t have Joel’ or ‘We don’t have Theo,’” Williams said. “The guy [Tennessee] started at point guard in its first game got hurt and didn’t play [tonight].
“Whoever’s wearing a North Carolina uniform has got to play better,” he continued. “But I’ve got to do a better job of coaching because I look like I’m talking to a brick wall.”
The fact of the matter is that this was an early December game that likely won’t mean much when the season is all said and done.
Plenty of unsung players have been given an opportunity to shine over this two-game stretch without Berry, it just didn’t exactly happen in the way that most fans would have liked—seeing as the Tar Heels have been involved in back-to-back nail biters at home against less talented opponents.
In the past, Williams has been known to use these types of games as learning experiences for his team.
On Sunday, though, when asked if that would be the case again this time, Williams replied very matter-of-factly.
“No,” he answered. “I’ll approach it like we stunk it up, and made a couple plays at the end.”
UNC will desperately need Berry in its next game, which takes place on Saturday Dec. 17 in Las Vegas against No. 6 Kentucky–which annually boasts one of the most talented rosters in all of college basketball.
- UNC rallied from a 15-point deficit in the first half and an eight-point halftime deficit . The 15-point comeback is Carolina’s largest since Feb. 17, 2014 when UNC rallied from a 21-6 deficit at Florida State to win, 81-75.
- Tennessee shot 65.4 percent from the floor in the first half. That’s the highest in any half by an opponent this year, the highest since Pitt shot 69.2 in the second half at Pitt on Feb. 14, 2015 and tied the fourth highest in a half by an opponent in Smith Center history.
- Tony Bradley came into the game leading the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. He had seven offensive rebounds against Tennessee.
- UNC made a season-low two three-pointers after making 19 threes in its previous two games combined.