As Williams walked toward the locker room at halftime, the score 50-26 in favor of UNC, he felt some déjà vu. His team led 52-26 against Stanford on Monday, before allowing 46 in the second half. So he floated the same idea — no rims at the next practice — if the Tar Heels (4-0) didn’t maintain their effort.
“You guys do not want to go through that,” assistant coach Steve Robinson said.
But it wasn’t an issue on Friday. Tennessee Tech had 32 in the last 20 minutes, and North Carolina forced 10 more turnovers. Four players — Kenny Williams, Cameron Johnson, Coby White and Sterling Manley — had two or more steals by game’s end.
That defense, in part, helped facilitate a dominant showing by UNC’s offense. Junior guard Seventh Woods had a career-high eight assists, and the team finished with a season-high 29 assists on 41 made field goals. The Tar Heels had 29 fast-break points, their most in the last three seasons, and the 50-point win was their largest since beating N.C. State by 51 in the 2016-17 season.
It was clear, however, that players’ focus was on the other end of the court. In one early second-half possession, Tennessee Tech guard Jr. Clay beat his defender and drew a foul on Manley. The 6-foot-11 forward shook his head. A nearby Luke Maye, noting his teammate’s frustration, immediately came over to offer some pointers.
“He was just telling me just be more alert, be more in a stance, don’t help up the lane, just be down,” Manley said. “Because, even if somebody gets beat off the dribble, I can still affect the shot and make a big play without fouling somebody.”
That was another area North Carolina improved in defensively. After committing 22 fouls against Elon and 18 against Stanford, UNC cut its total down to 15. More importantly, though, the Manley-Maye sequence was a tangible example of leadership on the team.
“I think it’s just continuing to help people no matter the score, the circumstance,” Maye said. “Sterling’s going to be a great player. Just some little things that get him out of position, but he’s going to figure it out sooner or later, and he’ll be really helpful down the stretch for us.”
In postgame interviews, it became clear that Maye and Williams, both seniors, and Johnson, a second-year grad transfer, were the driving force in the defensive improvement all week. Despite Wednesday’s practice being defense-only, the three roommates kept up their usual energy —and their younger teammates noticed.
“Going in, we knew we had to focus,” first-year Nassir Little said of the practice. “We were definitely tired. It was starting to catch up. But just the energy they bring, you kind of forget about it and just get lost in the practice and focus on getting better.”
“When times are bad, they do a good job of bringing us together and not panicking because of the experience they have,” fellow first-year Coby White added. “That’s the main thing that stands out to me.”
There wasn’t much to glean from a blowout win over Tennessee Tech, an Ohio Valley Conference team that lost its five leading scorers from last season. But, thanks to a midweek change and some veterans leading the way, one thing seems certain.
The next time the Tar Heels practice, the goals should have rims.
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