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On a familiar court, Justin Pierce's 18 points help UNC basketball to win over UNCW

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WCU freshman guard Jake Boggs (5) attempts to block as UNC graduate forward Justin Pierce (32) shoots the ball during their game at Trask Coliseum on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. The Tar Heels beat the Seahawks 78-62.

WILMINGTON, N.C.— For four members of the North Carolina men’s basketball starting five, Friday night was something of a landmark: their first road start in a Tar Heel jersey.

Sophomore Leaky Black, first-years Armando Bacot and Cole Anthony and graduate transfer Christian Keeling all came into the away opener against UNC-Wilmington, to varying degrees, untested. 

And when Bacot left the game for good after playing just two minutes and 41 seconds — he’s now being evaluated for a concussion — it would’ve been even easier for the Tar Heels to let one get away from them in Trask Coliseum.

Luckily, though, they had someone who had been there before – literally. Graduate forward Justin Pierce, who spent three years at UNCW conference rival William and Mary, played at Trask three times before, dropping 23 points there as a sophomore in a January 2018 win.

And it was Pierce’s 18 points on Friday that helped No. 9 UNC to a 78-62 victory, moving UNC to 2-0 and showing fans what the sharpshooting wing can do when he’s in his element.

“I’ve had big games here in the past, and my teammates did a really good job early on of finding me,” Pierce said. “When you see that first one go in, those first couple go in, the hoop gets a little bigger.”

The Tar Heels came out colder than a November ocean breeze, but Pierce scored eight of their first 11 to keep them afloat early. His 13 points in the first half paced North Carolina, a big reason for the team’s 40-29 advantage at the break.

To that point, Pierce was 5-8 from the field and 3-5 from three-point range. He says that since coming to Chapel Hill, he’s gotten used to playing with Nike basketballs, the UNC standard. Against UNCW, though, Pierce was shooting Wilson’s NCAA ball — also used in the NCAA tournament — which he says he’s more comfortable with.

“I think he was probably the most ready to go,” Anthony said. “He was talking about how that basketball is the basketball he played with at (William and Mary). So I’m like ‘Oh, so you like that ball?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah.’”

Anthony posted a game-high 20 points against the Seahawks, two nights after throwing up a 34-11-5 in the season opener against Notre Dame. But Pierce and his teammates know that’s not easily replicated.

“Cole had a monster Wednesday night, and we know we can’t rely on that for us to be successful,” he said. “For other guys to knock down shots today, that was big for us.”

In many ways, Pierce looked more comfortable on the road than he did in his first home game for the Tar Heels. Against the Irish, he had just five points on 1-6 from the field. 

“I think I was just trying to find my spot. Trying not to screw up, basically,” Pierce said.

On Friday, he was aggressive from the jump, taking four of the team’s first 12 shots. He said he approached the game with “a different attitude,” and it showed.

“I think that there’s a reason we recruited him,” head coach Roy Williams said. “We needed a player in that position. And I think he’s getting better, getting more relaxed out there.”

With Bacot’s status up in the air, North Carolina will need Pierce more than ever. Add the first-year center’s injury to a list that has claimed senior Brandon Robinson, junior big man Sterling Manley and a pair of first-year guards, Anthony Harris and Jeremiah Francis.

According to junior Garrison Brooks, Pierce is up for the challenge. He says that the guy that showed up in Trask Coliseum — not the guy from the Notre Dame game — is the real Pierce.

“It’s huge, man,” Brooks said. “Justin’s a big time player, so we expect him to play like that.”

@ryantwilcox

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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