Prior to the beginning of this season, the big questions for the North Carolina basketball team could be found in the paint. With the Tar Heels returning just three post players to a squad that lost 68 percent of its interior scoring, many believed the pressure would be on the UNC backcourt to carry the load.
Tuesday night at home against UNC-Asheville, it was the frontcourt trio of Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Justin Knox that made the difference, compensating for a sloppy performance from UNC’s guards.
“I wasn’t really surprised because that’s pretty much how Coach Williams wants our offense to flow—go inside first, then go outside,” Knox said. “We’ve all been playing pretty well, I think, these past couple days even though we lost our last two.”
The Tar Heels early struggles against the Bulldogs came in large part due to out-of-control play from UNC’s guards, who turned the ball over 13 times in the first half. But despite the turnovers, UNC was able to create extra possessions by cleaning up on the glass, outrebounding the undermatched Bulldogs 27-10 during the first half and 51-32 on the evening.
Zeller was the most impressive player on the court, leading all scorers with 23 points collected off a potent combination of mid-range jumpshots, put-backs and free-throws. Zeller was 8-for-11 from the field and 7-for-9 from the charity stripe.
“Thank goodness that Z was here tonight,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “He really did some good things.”
Though Zeller was the star, graduate transfer Justin Knox was every bit the banger the Tar Heels hoped he’d be when he came from Alabama during the off-season. The 6-foot-9 Birmingham, Ala., native muscled his way to eight rebounds and even took over the game during a two-minute stretch midway through the second half in which he had a block, a basket and three rebounds.
“He’s doing a great job of playing his role,” Zeller said. “He’s a very strong player, he’s very good at rebounding, very good at defense and he’s got some great moves inside. Overall, he’s just a great all-around player.”
Knox’ strong interior presence was complemented by Henson. The 20 pounds the sophomore added during the off-season were evident once again against the Bulldogs, as Henson posted 11 rebounds, leading the team in this category for the fourth time in UNC’s five games this season. Henson also made his presence felt on the perimeter stepping out to contest UNC-A’s long-distance shooters to compile five blocks on the evening.
Though UNC will need its guards to find a rhythm once fall turns to winter and the Tar Heels enter the meat of their ACC schedule, on this night, the 10-point advantage UNC held in the paint was enough to secure its 11-point victory.
“I think we have a pretty good presence down low,” Knox said. “It’s something we need to continue to continue this winning streak.”
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