Sterling Manley isn’t superstitious.
So, no, it wasn’t his new haircut — mini dreadlocks, inspired by an Isaiah Hicks style from last year — that helped him tie his ACC career high with nine points, or shoot a perfect 4-4 from the field against Georgia Tech.
In No. 15 North Carolina’s 80-66 win, Manley did this by simply following something his head coach, Roy Williams, has preached all season long.
“Whether you’re in for 30 seconds, or a minute or 40 minutes,” the 6-foot-11 forward recounted, “Just do whatever the team needs you to do.”
For the fourth consecutive game, UNC (16-4, 5-2 ACC) started the game with its small lineup. After all, the last three times the Tar Heels did so, good things happened: wins over Boston College, Notre Dame and Clemson.
But, against the Yellow Jackets bench play would be important. Georgia Tech’s traditional lineup featured 6-foot-9 Abdoulaye Gueye and 6-foot-10 Ben Lammers, a preseason All-ACC first teamer and the conference’s 2017 Defensive Player of the Year.
The two forwards had a height advantage over North Carolina starters Cameron Johnson and Luke Maye, who both stand at 6-foot-8. Manley was the first forward to sub in off the bench with 13:56 left in the first half. And as the tallest player on UNC’s team, his job was clear.
Just seconds later, Manley stood under the right side of the basket when he saw Georgia Tech fall asleep on defense. He sprinted to the basket, where fellow first-year Jalek Felton found him for a wide-open dunk.
“Georgia Tech, they’ll run man and then go 3-2 (zone) on the same possession,” Manley explained. “So just trying to flash it to the high post, cut baseline … You could be hiding behind them and cut behind them.”
The forward subbed out soon after, but his best minutes were yet to come. He returned to the Smith Center’s court a second time with 5:43 left in the half, and North Carolina trailing, 24-20.
So started a stretch that was the perfect example of what Williams and his coaching staff want from a reserve big man. First, Manley tipped in a missed 3-pointer by Joel Berry II. On the next possession, he drew a foul on Lammers and hit one of two free throws.
Then came another offensive rebound, off another Berry miss, for his second dunk of the game. That gave UNC a 31-26 lead and prompted the Yellow Jackets to take a full timeout.
“Manley is so long,” Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner said afterward. “He was just tipping the ball to himself in the first half.”
Georgia Tech scored out of the timeout, but Manley responded with yet another basket. This time, he found a soft spot in bottom left side of the zone and waited. Theo Pinson saw him, and assisted Manley for his third dunk of the half.
“He has really good hands …” Pinson said. “I promise you, I didn't even look at him when he got the dunk in the first half. He just knew to have his hands ready, especially when I get the ball.”
Manley had scored seven straight points for the Tar Heels without missing a field goal. In the same time period, he’d also fought for an offensive rebound, which ended up going out of bounds and gave UNC another possession, and forced Lammers into a tough fadeaway jump shot, which he airballed.
At the half, the Pickerington, Ohio, native had nine points on 4-4 shooting and three rebounds in nine minutes. He only played three minutes in the higher scoring second half and had no more points, which didn’t bother him at all. Like he said, UNC already has enough scorers —he’s just doing his job.
“Rebounding was big for us, no question,” Williams said. “I thought Sterling gave us a huge lift in the first half.”
UNC entered Saturday’s game as the ACC and NCAA leader in rebound margin, averaging 12.2 more than its opponents. That continued against Georgia Tech, even with every small-ball starter playing at least 29 minutes.
By halftime, the Tar Heels had as many offensive rebounds (11) as the Yellow Jackets did total rebounds. UNC ended up outrebounding Georgia Tech 46-25 overall, and 19-6 on the offensive glass. The +21 margin was North Carolina’s second best in ACC play, second only to a +35 against Boston College.
“Definitely with the small lineup, he just stresses that they have to rebound more,” Manley said, “and when we come off (the bench), we have to keep doing what we’re doing ... He’s just been on us.”
Pinson tied a career high with 10 rebounds to go along with his 11 points. Maye had his 11th double-double of the season, with a team-high 17 points and a game-high 11 boards. But Manley, who Pinson compared to 2017 NBA first-round pick Tony Bradley, may have had the most impressive performance.
“He’s a completely different kid,” Johnson said, comparing the Manley of the summer to the Manley of now. “He’s in a lot better shape, his motor’s much higher, he’s tougher, he moves better, he scores better, defends better. When big men come here, good things happen to them.”
Lammers played 37 minutes but scored just 12 points, 10 of which came in the first half. After the forward found success in the post early on, Maye and Manley forced him to take a number of outside shots.
"If he dribbles, try to get down low and stop him in the lane," Manley said of how he defended Lammers. "If he shoots it, get up under him. Nobody likes pressure. You want to play someone how you don’t want to be played."
Seven games into ACC play, Manley's confidence seems at an all-time high. He's played double-digit minutes in five of UNC's last six games. Against Notre Dame, the team even ran an inbounds play designed for him to catch a lob and score the winning basket.
"We didn’t execute it well," Manley reflected, "but it definitely gave me some confidence, that he trusted me."
He then gave a shout-out to his barber — "He gets me right" — and disappeared back into the locker room. With matchups against N.C. State and Duke's similarly big lineups looming, Manley could be called on yet again.
He plans to keep the new haircut for now, but if he continues to produce, that change won't be the reason.
After all, he isn't superstitious.
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