As Brandon Huffman retreated to the bench after his first four minutes of action during No. 13 North Carolina’s 97-73 win against Tulane on Sunday, he did so to applause.
In that short stretch, the first-year forward scored seven points, four of which came on a pair of two-handed slams that brought validation to head coach Roy Williams’ preseason proclamation that the 6-foot-10 forward was “going to break a backboard.”
As one of three, first-year big men made to contribute immediately for this year’s Tar Heels, Huffman finished with a career-high nine points in 12 minutes against the Green Wave.
After playing sparingly in recent games, the Goldsboro native made the most of the playing time he got and put in a performance he could smile about afterwards.
“This was my best game so far,” Huffman said. “This is a big improvement on the way I’ve been playing lately, and things are starting to click for me a little more.”
In a game where nearly everything went right for the Tar Heels, Huffman’s day put an exclamation point on a good group performance from UNC’s young post players.
Collectively, Huffman, Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks combined for 24 points on 11-14 shooting from the field and 14 rebounds.
“We got some good moments from a lot of guys — guys that came off the bench and particularly the freshman class,” Williams said. “I think Huff gave us some good things when he was in there. Sterling did, Garrison did.”
Prior to Sunday, Huffman only played a combined 10 minutes in UNC’s last four games, so he was eager to prove he could contribute if called upon.
“I kind of took it upon myself just to make sure that I’m doing everything that I can to earn Coach’s trust and everything,” Huffman said. “Those last two games were a little different because of the matchup; all the bigs that we played could shoot threes, so that was kind of hard for me. Coach didn’t want to put me out there and have me be a liability.”
Against Tulane, Huffman was the opposite of a liability. Using his size to his advantage, he blocked two shots and brought down six rebounds to play a role in the defensive performance from the Tar Heels.
“They looked really good today, I think Huff especially,” said junior guard Kenny Williams. “He came in in the first half and gave us big minutes – dunks, just being in the right spot. I think they’ve all been pretty good. I think they’re starting to get it, starting to understand how hard they have to play.”
Prior to the start of the season, Roy Williams joked about his first-year post players, saying: “You take the best characteristics out of each of them, and put them into one player, you still wouldn’t have a player.”
But so far, UNC has found a way to piece together Huffman, Brooks and Manley’s individual performances into a solid post presence — which will only become more important as the season progresses.
“I think they’re doing a great job,” junior forward Luke Maye said. “We’ve just got to keep bringing them along, and we’re going to need them to play great near the end of the year.”