But this dunk still couldn’t hide the fact that North Carolina was struggling. The Tar Heels were missing open 3-pointers and even some open layups. They weren’t rebounding. Guilford College was hanging around.
Sophomore forward Devin Dukes would change that — he only needed one hand, too.
Head coach Hubert Davis called UNC’s final timeout with under a minute left in the first half. Junior guard Lucas Bouknight realized the magnitude of the situation.
“When we called our last timeout, we were up five points,” he said. “So, we really made it an emphasis to end the half on a run.”
The Tar Heels played a possession of solid defense and then did what Davis had been preaching all game — they pushed it.
Within a few seconds, the ball was down the court and into the hands of forward Jeremy Werden, who converted an easy layup to bring the team’s lead to seven.
UNC then immediately shifted into a full-court press. As the clock drained under 10 seconds, Guilford College was caught off-guard.
The Quakers turned the ball over and Ma — the same guard who had assisted on Ellis’ dunk — found it in his hands. He quickly threw up a desperation 3-pointer.
It was way off. Luckily for UNC, Dukes was there to clean it up.
The ball bounced off the backboard directly into the right hand of Dukes, who had gotten himself into rebounding position. His left arm was tangled with a defender and there was one second left in the half, so he had no choice but to take an off-balance put-back attempt.
Dukes beat the clock and watched with the rest of the team as his shot hit the glass, hit the rim and went through the net. UNC entered halftime with a 32-23 and never looked back.
“I think we had struggled the whole first half,” Davis said. “That flurry in the latter part of the first half really helped.”
North Carolina revved up its defensive intensity to balloon its lead from 9 to 19. Ellis — who finished with a team-high 17 points — credited his personal success to defending too.
“You don’t want to be playing soft defense,” he said. “I think I was a little bit more aggressive in the second half.”
“It definitely got started on the defensive end.”
UNC’s second-half damage control was successful tonight, but the Tar Heels still shot poorly from 3-point range and turned the ball over 17 times.
Davis knows that later in the season, sloppiness won’t work.
“Guilford is a good basketball team,” he said. “But against better teams, we’re going to get beat if we play like that way.”
“We just weren’t very good.”