Aside from the distanced benches and empty seats in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, the first half felt far too familiar to the Tar Heels of late: offensive struggles, turnovers and a fair share of defensive lapses.
Sure, Iowa may have decided that missed 3-pointers were optional in their opening half on Tuesday, which featured 11 makes from beyond the arc en route to a 93-80 win for the Hawkeyes, but UNC’s nine turnovers and lack of offensive rhythm made the group look like a few adjectives that frequently described them last season.
Lethargic, sloppy and often unamused.
It seemed as though the flight back to Chapel Hill would be awkward and uneasy, but coming out of the break, the Tar Heels seemed to find something.
The first three buckets of the second half?
Dunk, dunk, dunk.
A marked improvement to say the least.
“It was all about being aggressive and getting the ball to the rim,” senior forward Garrison Brooks said. “I think that’s something we should have taken advantage of early in the game.”
Although the second-half push was not enough to get the Tar Heels over the hump, the group demonstrated a fighting quality that may not have existed a year ago.
“I’m pretty sure that last year, we would have lost this game by 25,” Brooks said.
One reason behind the second-half success was UNC’s commitment to playing throwback Tar Heel basketball, a faster style that spreads the ball around inside and out. Following just six assists as a team against Texas, the ball moved more freely on Tuesday night, and the squad finished with a season-high 22 assists.
“I was about to die in Asheville because I think we went the first 17 minutes without an assist,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “Tonight, we did share the ball better after the early part of the game and worked it inside, where I feel we have an advantage.”
Coming into the season, the North Carolina frontcourt was supposed to be one of the team’s strengths, and the first few games have done little to disprove that description. While Brooks, the ACC preseason player of the year, continues to be a vocal leader for the group, other figures have risen to the occasion as well.
First-year Day’Ron Sharpe has played with a high motor, and it was his effort that prevented the Tar Heels from getting blown out. While his 13 points and six rebounds contributed to the stat sheet, his energy seemed to provide a greater effect.
“Even when I’m not on the court, I’m just an energetic guy,” Sharpe said. “I’m a fun guy to be around, and I just try to bring it to the court to keep my teammates boosted up.”
Despite the improvements the team made in the second half, the 3-2 Tar Heels know they are far from a finished product. A few minutes of high intensity basketball will not magically alleviate the 17 3-pointers they allowed the Hawkeyes to drain, nor will it rid the team of its plaguing turnover problems.
If Williams believed in moral victories, it's unlikely he’d be in the Hall of Fame with three titles and nearly 900 actual wins.
“I love my team, but we need to get tougher,” Williams said. “We need to have more pride in the defensive end of the floor and take what they’re giving in the scouting report and do that out on the court.”
The Tar Heels have one more non-conference game against Ohio State before opening up its ACC slate against N.C. State on Dec. 22. After dwelling in the basement of the conference last season, this team has the look of something different, even after a loss like Tuesday's.
“This team competes,” first-year guard RJ Davis said. “We showed a lot of grit, and if we show that for 40 minutes, I think we can be great.”
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