For a team that forces the ball inside as much as North Carolina does, limiting turnovers is crucial. Playing in the post gives the defense an opportunity to send help from the offensive player’s blind side, making it a high-risk situation for inexperienced bigs. The development of Brooks on that end, as well as Maye's comfort level, and UNC’s ability to punish smaller teams will be crucial to the offensive success Williams' offense.
The defense was better, holding Pittsburgh to just 60 points, 17 below its season average and much better than UNC’s season average of 72.1 points allowed per game. But the team also fouled much more than they should have, sending the Panthers to the line 32 times. They only converted on 20 of those shots, shooting a mediocre 62.5 percent from the line, something UNC won’t be able to count on from its opponents in the future.
The rebounding wasn’t spectacular, something Williams noted.
“They out rebounded us by one in the second half,” Williams said. “I feel like they got way too many second shots and I think that usually is intensity level there.”
Williams noted before the game on Friday that the current iteration of his team lacked any natural rebounders like Kennedy Meeks or Brice Johnson, which means his players needed to focus more as a whole on rebounding, especially from the wing positions. Johnson had nine rebounds, while first-year Nassir Little had six and fellow first-year wing Leaky Black had five.
Even despite the issues the three-time national champion head coach had with his team, this UNC squad has showed some positive signs of growth. White scored 22 points, his highest since his 33-point outing against Texas, and showed himself to be an on- and off-ball threat.
“I grew up playing off-ball, so it’s not really nothing new to me,” White said. “I feel like I play really well on and off the ball, I prefer on the ball, but I think I can play on the ball too.”
White had three out of four of his 3-pointers come off assists from teammates, and one pull-up jumper from outside in transition. He also had an excellent backdoor cut where he slid to the basket after a pass from Maye operating out of the high-post.
The other first-years showed flashes as well. Little had a highlight-reel block on a floating shot by Jared Wilson-Frame, along with a nice dunk on a slip-screen action play with Brandon Robinson. But he struggled to make an impact, missed his two jumpers as well as four free throws and struggled with fouls. Black had a few nice defensive plays and made a pull-up jumper from the mid-range position and had three assists, but struggled with his shot going 1 of 5 from the field.
Brooks showed his continue growth, something his head coach and his fellow teammate Maye praised.
“Looking at Garrison Brooks’ line… he’s really good for our team,” Williams said. “He doesn’t have to have the ball all the time, he doesn’t have to shoot all the time, but he’s really good for our team and those are good minutes from him today.”
Brooks showed off his potential as the next true anchor for North Carolina with a little under two minutes left in the game. Posted up, he faked a shot, reverse-pivoted, then took a wide open layup on a play he made for himself. He missed the shot, but the footwork and patience were keys to any successful UNC big.
“We joked about (the shot) afterwards because he makes that every day in practice,” Maye said. “For a great move like that, and a great player, he usually knocks it down and he’ll knock down the next one. I think he’s grown a lot, and it’s great to see from him.”
With so much of the offense revolving around the three veterans on the team, moments like those are important to the future of UNC’s program after the end of the season. While the national media believes Little will be declaring for the draft after his first year in college, North Carolina will still need key contributions from young players going into the future.
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