The North Carolina men’s basketball team came into the Dean E. Smith Center on Saturday in search of a statement victory. Louisville came into Chapel Hill fresh off a multi-week absence due to a COVID-19 outbreak. The Cardinals were hoping to slowly get into the game, but they weren't given a chance.
For the Tar Heels, this was the perfect time to play Louisville, and they took full advantage of it, throttling an undermanned group. But it was the youngest Tar Heels who used an electrifying first half to lead the way in a dominant 99-54 victory.
About seven minutes into the game, North Carolina found itself clinging onto a one-point lead. The first-years went on to score the Tar Heels' next 33 points, and UNC's lead was suddenly in double-digits.
“When we went on the run,” first-year forward Day’Ron Sharpe said, “I thought we were going to blow the game open. I feel like we were about to blow them out.”
Whether it was Walker Kessler using his length to stretch across the floor for loose balls, Sharpe gobbling up every offensive rebound in sight or guard Kerwin Walton draining contested 3-pointers, the performance from UNC's first-years was the most impressive this season.
And when the first half seemed all but over, guard Caleb Love decided to end it on his terms, emphatically finishing a fast break with a one-handed slam. It was an injection of energy for the Tar Heels, representing an overall dominant performance.
And the older players on the team responded by showing their appreciation.
When effort plays were made, they clapped and yelled.
When a player went down, they rushed to pick them back up.
And when Walton got any look from deep, the players on the bench were already standing up.
“They just have a lot of confidence in me, and they think everything I put up is gonna go in because they know how good of a shooter I am,” Walton said. “That actually gives me a lot of confidence to put the ball up and make every shot that I can. They’re great teammates.”
Head coach Roy Williams' group has faced a lot of obstacles recently. With all the disappointments surrounding them after a slow start and a disastrous 2019-20 season, the Tar Heels seem to have recently learned how to come together, though.
“I’ve always said it takes a special person to enjoy other people's successes,” Williams said. “Our guys get excited when Kerwin makes those shots, and Kerwin doesn’t say boo. They get him talking more than we do. The kids want him to be successful. When Day’Ron is that active around the board, that’s something the guys appreciate.”
By the second half, the Tar Heels were just having fun. Viewers were soon watching Andrew Platek throw a no-look pass to a trailing Kessler for the jumper as the lead approached 40. And the entire bench was still on its feet, basking in the delight of an utter beatdown. A beatdown that consisted of 71 points scored by first-years, the most in UNC history.
When Sharpe heard that number in the postgame press conference, he quickly popped his head up.
"That’s crazy," he said.
The emotion displayed on the floor Saturday night showed a team capable of maintaining itself through March. And even a deflating loss against Virginia couldn't extinguish the competitive fire.
In front of the bleachers of a nearly empty Smith Center, reads three short commands:
Play hard. Play smart. Play together.
In their most complete game this season, the Tar Heels did exactly that on the coattails of a stellar performance by the first-year class.
“I’ve said all along I think our freshmen are going to be good players,” Williams said. “My request is for them to do it during my lifetime, and today, it was in the first half. So, hope I get to see more of that before I kick out.”