Roy Williams told reporters prior to UNC’s season opener against Gardner-Webb on Nov. 9 that he was ready for his Tar Heels to play in a live game to see how they would respond. UNC took care of business in home wins over the Bulldogs and Florida Atlantic, but playing in a hostile environment presents its own set of challenges.
As expected, there was plenty to be gleaned from UNC’s victory. The Tar Heels jumped out to a 9-4 lead, but were outscored 27-16 over the next 15 minutes. UNC then closed the first half on an 8-1 run to take a 33-32 lead into halftime.
“We didn’t respond very well in the first half,” Williams said following the game. “We were too panicky and too eager to shoot the basketball. Instead of getting what we wanted, we took the shot that they wanted. But I think every day that you play and play a game on the road, it helps you.”
Home teams often have one late run in their arsenal and Long Beach State was no different. After falling behind by five early in the second half, the 49ers retook the lead on a 7-0 run. The Tar Heels held strong and eventually put the game away with a 25-7 spurt.
In addition to overall team lessons, there was also individual growth on display.
James Michael McAdoo, in just his third game as North Carolina’s primary scoring option, struggled early against a defense designed to front and double team him in the post. The sophomore scored six points on 3-of-8 shooting in the first half.
He found his comfort zone after the break, asserting himself on the offensive end and proving that he was the most talented player on the court. McAdoo doubled his point total in the second half on 5-of-9 shooting to finish with 18 points and nine rebounds.
Williams told McAdoo at halftime that he had to make plays. Don’t just take shots, but make shots.
“James Michael was effective taking the ball to the basket,” Williams said. “He didn’t shoot as many free throws. He was 2-for-3 from the free throw line – he’s got to be a little more aggressive than that. But I think he was more aggressive in the second half. He made his little face-up jumpers a couple of times, got a couple of follows.”
Freshman point guard Marcus Paige (15 points, 6-of-10 shooting) answered any questions about if he was ready to play on the road early by knocking down a pair of 3-pointers to build UNC’s 9-4 lead. He was effective in limiting Mike Caffey to 14 points on 5-of-21 shooting.
The negative for Paige came in the form of turnovers. To his credit, the rookie accepted blame for half of UNC’s 13 turnovers during the postgame locker room discussion, but Williams told him he only had five.
There were also continuing revelations in the how the frontcourt may ultimately play out. Sophomore Desmond Hubert started for the third straight game, but played only 11 minutes. Freshman Brice Johnson (10 pts, 8 rebs) provided a significant boost in the first half to earn the second half start, while fellow rookie Joel James (3 pts, 9 rebs, 2 blks) delivered on the defensive end.
“I think Desmond has really been good in practice, but just hasn’t been able to find a comfort zone in the game,” Williams said. “So we tried to put Joel and Brice in and tried to give both of them a chance in the first half and Brice gave us help offensively. Defensively, he kept diving in below the low post and they could just throw it in to the post guy every time, so I took him out. I thought Joel did some good things. But Brice gave us a big lift there for a while and so did Joel.”
Johnson’s approach to the game was pretty straightforward.
“Just go in there and contribute,” Johnson said. “Just go in and help out when [McAdoo] is out. I’ve just got to keep the pace going when he’s out.”
Maybe most importantly, the Tar Heels were able to lean on their defense when their shots weren’t falling. UNC only connected on 40.0 percent of its field goal attempts, yet held Long Beach State to 36.2 percent.
The Tar Heels survived their first road test against a well-coached athletic squad. Up next is a three-day tournament against power conference teams before a trip to top-ranked Indiana.
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