The North Carolina team that was whipped by then-No. 7 Michigan 84-67 last month, was nothing like the one that showed up to defeat No. 4 Gonzaga 103-90 on Saturday.
Nope. On Saturday, the 12th-ranked Tar Heels, with their sharp shooting, looked like a team capable of going far in the NCAA tournament. A team many will likely hope to avoid come March.
When asked what the difference between this UNC team, and the one that lost to Michigan, both seniors Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams had the same answer.
“Effort,” they said.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“I know we had 23 turnovers, but the Michigan game, there was just no effort,” Williams said.
The Tar Heels (8-2) picked up their biggest win of the season on Saturday against the fourth-ranked Zags (9-2), who have now lost two consecutive games. The Zags led for the first five minutes of the game, but after the Tar Heels finally took the lead, they never let it go.
Even when the Zags would cut the lead to single digits, the Tar Heels always seemed to have an answer.
The Michigan loss was a low point in the season, likely UNC’s wost game. It was an embarrassing defeat, one in which the Wolverines dominated the Tar Heels on offense and defense. UNC coach Roy Williams had questioned his team’s effort, and criticized his own coaching.
As punishment, coach Williams made his team run in practice.
Kenny Williams said the Tar Heels got the message and they came out with more effort because they didn’t want to run anymore ‘33’s.’
A ‘33’ is when the players run up and down the court six times. If they don’t finish it in 33 seconds, then they have to run it again until they make the time, Williams said.
“It was either change our effort, or keep getting on the line and running 33’s,” the 6-4, 185-pound senior guard said.
The Tar Heels’ effort showed against the Zags. They out-rebounded the Zags 42-21. They had 14 offensive rebounds, and 27 second-chance points.
“After the Michigan game, a lot of people were probably a little down on us, thinking we couldn’t handle it,” Johnson said. “But we’ve got good leadership, we’ve got the best coach in college basketball, we’ve got great young talent and we’ve got depth and we got guys that want it. You put that together and you keep stirring, and we’re hoping good things will come.”
Here are five other observations from UNC’s win:
1. UNC finally knocks down its 3’s
Two weeks ago, after UNC shot 6-for-24 from behind the 3-point line against UNC-Wilmington, coach Williams looked at the box score and proclaimed that one day, his team would make a lot of shots.
“I hope it’s in my lifetime,” he said.
That came a lot sooner than he expected. UNC hit the majority of its 3-point shots on Saturday against Gonzaga. The Tar Heels were 13-for-25 from behind the 3-point line, which is 52 percent. It was the first time all season they had shot better than 50 percent from behind the arc.
Johnson finished with a season-high six 3-pointers, and was 6-for-8. Freshman point guard Coby White was 3-for-7 from behind the 3-point line.
The 3-pointers came in clutch situations too. After Gonzaga had cut UNC’s lead to nine points with less than 10 minutes left in the game, Johnson knocked down a 3-pointer to give UNC a 12-point lead.
“In shoot around I was going around saying, ‘This is our day,” Johnson said. “This is our day. We’ve been slumping for nine games now. You’d think we’d break through one game, and this was it.”
2. Johnson re-gaining his rhythm
There was no hotter player to start the season for UNC than Johnson. Through the first three games, he was 20-for-31 from the floor overall, and 10-for-14 from behind the 3-point line.
But he cooled off over the next five games. Johnson’s performance in the Michigan game, though, was one to forget. He had five points and was 2-for-7 from the floor. He called his own performance “unacceptable.”
In the two games since that performance, Johnson scored 20 or more points in both. He scored 21 points and was 7-for-14 from the floor against UNC-Wilmington on Dec. 5.
And against Gonzaga, he couldn’t miss. He was 8-for-12 from the floor overall and scored 25 points. He also had four assists, and even dunked over a defender.
“Cam was Cam,” freshman guard Coby White said. “His confidence is high and he made shots. Cam is always calm. He never gets rattled by anything.”
When a reporter asked was this one of the better games of his career, Johnson said, “it was up there.”
“I felt like this one was really big for us right now in this moment, so I’ll put that one at the to right now,” he said.
The Tar Heels still have a turnover problem. UNC turned it over a season-high 23 times against Gonzaga, and the Zags scored 29 points off those turnovers.
Williams called Gonzaga’s 29 points off turnovers an “amazing stat.” The Tar Heels were fortunate the game was not closer.
White had five turnovers, Williams had four turnovers, senior forward Luke Maye and junior guard Seventh Woods had three turnovers each. Many of the turnovers led to easy fast-break layups for Gonzaga.
Turnovers have been an issue for UNC for the entire season. Michigan scored 18 points off the Tar Heels’ 10 turnovers in that loss. And Texas forced UNC to commit 17 times, which, at the time, was a season-high.
“Just simple guard-to-guard passes,” coach Williams said of Saturday’s turnovers. “I mean I’ve never seen anything like that. First half, we threw three of them away and they’re laying it up on the other end. You don’t have a chance to defend that.”
4. Coby White ‘feels great’
White returned to the starting lineup Saturday, after missing UNC’s game against UNC-Wilmington on Dec. 5 with a sore ankle. White missed his first three 3-pointers, but eventually settled in with his shot and found a rhythm. He didn’t seem bothered by the ankle against Gonzaga.
He finished the the game with 15 points and was 5-for-13 from the floor. White is second on the team in scoring this season, averaging 15.3 points per game. Before his injury, he had led the Tar Heels in scoring in each of his last three games. One of those games, included a 33-point performance against Texas.
“I feel great,” White said of his ankle. “Rehabbing it a little bit. I feel like I’m back playing to where I was at the beginning of the season.”
He said he does not anticipate having any further problems going forward.
White played in 22 minutes on Saturday.
Junior point guard Seventh Woods, who started for White when UNC played UNC-Wilmington, scored a career-high 14 points against Gonzaga. He was 6-for-9 from the field and 2-for-2 from behind the 3-point line.
5. Luke Maye has big game
Maye, a 6-8, 240-pound forward had struggled shooting recently. In each of Maye’s last five games, he had shot below 50 percent from the floor.
“I feel like I’ve struggled a little bit this year early just trying to find my shot and make sure I get to the right spots,” Maye said.
He scored 11 points in four of the five games, and 16 points in the other. But on Saturday, Maye seemed to have a breakout performance. He had 20 points and a season-high 16 rebounds against Gonzaga, all while guarding the Bulldog’s best player, Rui Hachimura.
“That’s the Luke we know,” Johnson said. “20 and 16 against a good team. He can do that every night.”
Maye had a breakout season in 2017-18, averaging a double-double last year (16.9 ppg, 10.1 rbg). The one negative about him was that he had trouble guarding athletic big men.
Maye was the primary defender on Hachimura (6-8, 230), an athletic big, and one of the top players in the country. Maye managed to slow him down. Hachimura, who averages 22 points per game, had 17 points, but was only 5-for-14 from the floor.
“He’s a great player,” Maye said. “He’s really tough, but (I) just tried to stay in front of him. He spun off me a couple of times for easy buckets, but I just tried to make it tough for him to get the ball.”