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.’”