Although UNC head coach Roy Williams expressed concerns with what he’d seen from his team in practice leading up to Friday’s season opener, the ninth-ranked Tar Heels can take plenty of positives away from their 86-69 victory at the Dean Dome over Northern Iowa.
With senior point guard Joel Berry and graduate transfer Cam Johnson each sitting out due to injuries, junior forward Luke Maye proved he is ready for the spotlight.
The Huntersville native scored in a variety of ways—inside and outside–on the way to a career-high 26 points and a team-high 10 rebounds.
Maye’s presence on offense—most notably the threat of a perimeter shot—also helped space things enough where freshmen big men Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley could feast on easy buckets down low in their first college game.
“It gives them more opportunity in the post, and it really allows to kind of work one-on-one,” Maye said, evaluating how he fits in with his new teammates up front. “Because I’m out on the perimeter, they can’t really double [team] as easily.
“Garrison made some good moves in there and Sterling made his free throws—which was good,” he continued. “We just gotta keep working in practice and continue to get better.”
Brooks, who started alongside Maye in the frontcourt, tallied 14 points and six rebounds in 18 minutes of action, while Manley provided a solid 14 minutes off the bench.
Maye said the team took on a “next man up” mentality with Berry and Johnson out, knowing there was plenty of production that needed replacing.
Junior guard Kenny Williams scored 10 points to join Maye and Brooks in double figures, but Manley followed right behind with an impressive stat-line of nine points and eight rebounds.
Roy Williams hesitated to dole out much praise for either of his young big men after the game, but did explain how he’s distributing the minutes at that position—while perhaps offering a glimpse at how he’s motivating them in the process.
“Garrison is playing more minutes because he’s making fewer mistakes,” Williams told reporters. “You’d like to give a guy playing time because of the great things he does, but if his competition’s not doing the great things then the other way to go is by who’s making the fewest mistakes.”
Another spot where UNC is looking to avoid mistakes is in the point guard position, while Berry remains sidelined with his broken hand.
Freshman Jalek Felton earned his first career start for the Tar Heels, but scored just five points and dished out only a single assist—despite flashing a highlight-reel spin move early in the game that led to an easy lay-up.
Felton’s competition for the spot—sophomore Seventh Woods—provided 18 minutes off the bench and scored nine points, utilizing a much-improved mid-range jump shot on multiple occasions.
Woods, though, only recorded two assists as the playmaking duties fell more on Kenny Williams and Theo Pinson—who led UNC with five assists apiece.
Those issues stand to be corrected with time, however, as Felton and Woods improve and Berry ultimately returns to lead the team.
In a game where the Tar Heels led by as many as 31 points in the second half—a number aided by the fact that Northern Iowa star forward Bennett Koch picked up four fouls—those problems are far outweighed by the positives Maye and the young big men provided.
“All in all, we did some good things,” Williams said. “Yes, it helped us when Koch got in foul trouble early and we were able to do things inside.
“But there were a lot of things to like and a lot of things we can work on, both,” he added. “So it’s a coach’s dream.”
The Tar Heels return to action on Wednesday, Nov. 15 at the Smith Center against Bucknell, with tip-off scheduled for 8 p.m.
- Maye’s previous career high of 17 points came during UNC’s Elite Eight win vs. Kentucky last season, a game in which his buzzer-beating jumper sent the Tar Heels to the Final Four.
- Cam Johnson sprained his neck in practice on Tuesday, which was why he did not play in Friday’s game. He and Berry were each in uniform, however.
- Garrison Brooks and Jalek Felton represented the first time UNC has started two freshmen in the season opener since 2007 when Brandan Wright and Wayne Ellington did the same.
- Brooks’ 14 points are the most by a UNC freshman in his debut since Harrison Barnes scored 14 against Lipscomb on Nov. 12, 2010.
Cover photo via Todd Melet