The North Carolina men’s basketball team was playing double time for the first time in a long time on Tuesday night.
Over the past five games, the Tar Heels have suffered a major upset at home to Wofford, a close call at home against Wake Forest and two straight road losses to ACC foes. The game held serious weight on the direction of the season — and the players knew it.
“I've got really good kids, they care about what other people think,” head coach Roy Williams said. “I tell them just shut up and play. But I think they started feeling a little pressure.”
But against Boston College, the No. 20 Tar Heels seemed recharged, showing no signs of their recent struggles.
By the end of the first half, UNC had already scored more total points, points in the paint, fast break points, and second chance points than in their entire 40-minute struggle against then-No. 8 Virginia on Saturday.
The first meaningful change to the starting lineup this season gave North Carolina a jolt, as Roy Williams opted to go with a small lineup to begin the game — switching Cameron Johnson for usual big man Garrison Brooks.
“We just wanted to get this win and turn things around,” senior guard Joel Berry II said. “That's why Coach changed the starting lineup, and you could just tell that everyone was locked in before the game and wanted to bring that energy because we knew we had to win this game.”
The buzz on the court paid off in every facet of the game for North Carolina. UNC finished the contest with 48 points in the paint to Boston College’s 18, 24 second chance points to B.C.’s six and 19 fast break points to the Eagles’ two.
UNC dominated the boards as well, out-rebounding the Eagles 58-23. This surprising advantage from the smaller lineup led to the myriad of fast break opportunities.
“It wasn't a conscious adjustment...” junior guard Kenny Williams said. “It was just the opportunities were there, and that comes with playing with a little more energy, a little more effort.”
The energy in the stands was also palpable. The combined force of students flooding back for the beginning of the semester — tagged with their pent up hope that the Tar Heels could shift the tides of the past few weeks — created a raucous environment.
Johnson, who recorded his first double-double since transferring to UNC and the second of his career, noted the effect of coming back home. He recalled a moment early in the second half, when the Eagles had chipped away at the 15-point halftime lead.
“We were bringing the ball up the court, the lead might have even been at single digits, and the whole arena just started erupting, clapping and cheering,” Johnson said. “And that's always like, ‘Okay we got this, people behind us, let’s just keep pushing forward.’ That’s always a great feeling to have.”
The graduate transfer, who scored 24 points in the Smith Center last year against the Tar Heels while playing for Pittsburgh, provided unique insight on how these moments affect opponents visiting Chapel Hill.
“You know, when you make a play and then you go back on defense, you kind of expect the crowd to be hushed,” Johnson said. “But when they get up and clap and cheer, for no apparent reason, it's like, ‘Man, these people are really against us. Like they’re really cheering on their team.’ And that really can effect the game pretty positively (for UNC).”
From the crowd to the court, it was clear something was different: a new starting lineup, a return home, and, most importantly, a win. As Roy Williams pointed out, his team seemed to be enjoying it more than they had the past few games.
“Oh yeah, it was a lot more fun,” Kenny Williams said. “When you play better it's a lot more fun, when you play harder you get to have more fun.”
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