Everything about Wednesday night’s 86-71 win over Michigan marked a return to normalcy for the North Carolina men’s basketball team.
The Tar Heels arrived in Chapel Hill two days earlier, at 6:30 a.m. All of their success on the 11-day stint — Kenny Williams’ first-half outburst against Stanford, a season-high 102 points against Portland, a 13-0 run to close out Arkansas — had been overshadowed by a Sunday night loss to Michigan State.
“I lay down at 7:15 and woke up at 9 o’clock because it wasn’t doing any good,” head coach Roy Williams said. “Went and got a haircut to see if it would help me. I’m willing to try anything, but I’m not one of those coaches who’s going to say, ‘Oh, it was a bad game. Let’s go on.’”
The team took Monday off. In their film session on Tuesday, Williams and his players spent 45 minutes reviewing the 63-45 loss to Michigan State — and the program worst 24.6 shooting percentage that came with it — before shifting to Michigan tape.
By halftime on Wednesday, UNC was back in its groove.
The No. 13 Tar Heels assisted on 16 of 20 field goals in the first 20 minutes and shot 64.5 percent from the field — a season best for any half. Luke Maye scored 13; Kenny Williams, 11.
By the 17:41 mark, UNC had already made more 3-pointers (two) than it did in the entire Michigan State game (one on 18 attempts). By the 2:13 mark, North Carolina had surpassed its final point total against the Spartans.
The atmosphere was a welcoming one, too. It had been exactly two weeks since UNC’s last home game. During one break, the 1993 national championship team was honored. During another, an entourage including Gov. Roy Cooper and Chancellor Carol Folt rolled out a new highway marker which commemorated UNC’s 2017 title and would be placed at entrances to the state, starting next year.
In postgame interviews, Kenny Williams greeted the reporters gathering around him with a “Great to see y’all” before answering questions. Leaning back in a stool and wearing a white Nike cutoff, he was visibly happy.
“I think everybody was excited to be back home,” he said. “We had been out there (on the road) for so long. I actually got those goosebumps running out of the tunnel. I think that tells how long I’ve been away.”
Maye, who finished with 27 points, six rebounds and three assists, agreed. He was one point shy of his career high, which he’s already broken twice this year, and shot above 60 percent for the fourth time this season.
“It was huge,” he said. “Coming back home, you’re going to shoot well. It’s your home — you shoot here every day. It was really good to get everyone back on track.”
Nobody on the team was happy with the second half. Kenny Williams called it a “brain fart.” Michigan had 24 rebounds to UNC’s 19, and North Carolina had just six assists. Moritz Wagner, the Wolverines’ 6-foot-11 forward, finished the game with 20 points and shot almost 70 percent.
“We have to get better,” Roy Williams said. “We’re mediocre right now, but I do think we can get there. The biggest leap is going to be if the big guys start getting better inside.”
The one stat that differed from the norm this season was Michigan’s 3-point percentage. Entering Monday’s games, UNC was allowing opponents to shoot 40.4 percent from that range, a number that ranked 321st in the country. But Michigan shot just 29 percent on Wednesday, making 10 threes on 34 attempts. Of course, that was a change the Tar Heels didn’t mind.
“Some of it was our defense,” Roy Williams said. “But more of it was they just missed shots.”
The performance as a whole seemed to be a refreshing one for the team. The effort, which no player hesitated to admit was absent against Michigan State, made a comeback. In one sequence, Kenny Williams made dives into the courtside seats and onto the court itself to secure loose balls. The saves occurred within 45 seconds of each other, both led to layups and forced a Michigan timeout.
“With the loose balls, I just throw my body around, and that energizes everybody else,” the junior guard said. “Once they see someone doing it, they feel like they’re forced to jump on the ball.”
Sterling Manley grabbed a defensive rebound and threw a no-look, behind-the-back pass to Seventh Woods to start a fast break. Garrison Brooks converted an and-one dunk and roared to the crowd in celebration. Walker Miller even got on the scoreboard for the first time in his career with a pump fake, step through and lefty jump hook.
“A or B,” Berry said. “That was our grade for tonight, but I still think we can come out and pay a little more attention to detail.”
There is film to watch, and there are tweaks to make. But within a young season just seven games old, North Carolina hit the reset button, and it worked.
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