Luke DeCock

As freshmen lead way, UNC gets closer to the team it wants to be

Roy Williams following win over Virginia Tech: ‘I like five guys in double figures’

Williams addresses the media following the Tar Heels win over Virginia Tech on Monday, January 21, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
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Williams addresses the media following the Tar Heels win over Virginia Tech on Monday, January 21, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

North Carolina gets a week to think about this one, and that’s a good thing. This eight-day gap in the schedule may not come at a great time, coming off what might have been the Tar Heels’ best overall performance of the season, but if they have to watch the video of this one over and over before they play again, might as well be this.

Especially since there was a moment in the first half when Virginia Tech couldn’t miss and North Carolina couldn’t get out of its own way and it started to feel like the Louisville debacle all over again. That’s a long way from how it ended, a 103-82 North Carolina win, with the Hokies running out of warm bodies and the Tar Heels rubbing it in by getting contributions from deep off the bench.

This was the rare North Carolina game where the Tar Heels did so much right that even the plays they didn’t make were great. Coby White looked to have gotten nothing but hand-on-ball on a block from behind on Kerry Blackshear, but it was called a foul. While the crowd erupted in anger the UNC bench was thrilled with the fact that White recovered to chase down Blackshear, who had been slow coming up the court and had a huge headstart when North Carolina turned it over.

In many ways, it was the team everyone expected to see on a regular basis after the Gonzaga win, and while UNC coach Roy Williams was quick to issue his usual disclaimer – “everything looks better when the ball goes in the basket” – there was so much more than the ball going in the basket, even if it surely did. The Tar Heels started 1-for-12 from 3-point range and finished up 15-for-22 after that, including a pair by Nassir Little, who had that many in the previous 13 games.

The barrage of 3-pointers after the early drought relied far less heavily on forced shots, with many coming on wide-open inside-out actions. Brandon Robinson’s defense off the bench in a brief first-half stretch was a critical factor, as was the energy of all three freshmen and their 57 combined points, White, Little and Leaky Black.

North Carolina’s Coby White (2) breaks to the basket between the Virginia Tech defense during the first half for two of his game high 27 points on Monday, January 21, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

“We haven’t seen them like that,” Kenny Williams said. “We don’t need them to do that every game, butthey can.”

Of course, the Tar Heels got some help elsewhere. Buzz Williams, shorthanded, left both Justin Robinson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker in the game after they picked up two first-half fouls, and both quickly picked up a third. Robinson’s third coincided with a 26-9 UNC run to finish out the half. It’s hard to say what other choice Williams had at that point, other than to roll the dice. The Hokies are only seven players deep right now. The foul gamble was their only option. And it failed badly.

The search for the real UNC will go on, with uncertain results. This was certainly closer to whatever the ideal is than the Louisville loss was, but there’s still such an element of randomness with this team. The reasons for that are easy to understand: an explosive freshman point guard who is still very much a freshman, the lack of a reliable post scoring option, a bench rotation that’s as deep as it almost always is under Williams but is far more unsettled than is typical for this point in the season.

The Louisville loss was only nine days ago, and no one still has any idea what, exactly, is the real UNC.

“Somewhere in between,” Roy Williams admitted, “but I hope it’s a hell of a lot closer to games like this and Gonzaga. I’m going to have more gray hair, or not as many, one of the two. I really don’t know.”

When the freshmen play like this, it soothes a lot of anxiousness. White was all of it Monday, the shoot-first creator he was in high school and the speedy distributor he has to be in college. As the Tar Heels took over in the first half, White hit one catch-and-shoot 3-pointer in the flow of the offense and another as a step-back jumper on his way to becoming the first player to lead UNC in points, rebounds, assists and steals in 18 years.

North Carolina’s Nassir Little (5) breaks to the basket for a dunk on a fast break in the first half against Virginia Tech on Monday, January 21, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Little scored 23 points in the Tar Heels’ victory. Robert Willett

Little is coming on now, finally delivering the production and defense to match his talent with 46 points in the past three games, and Black’s role continues to increase. He played the least of the three, but left his mark.

“It’s a step,” Black said. “Step by step. We’re getting there. It’s a process.”

The process stalls for a week, but for the Tar Heels after a win like this, it’s a time to savor as much as recover.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.