Forget everything you’ve seen up to now.
Forget all the highs and lows the North Carolina men’s basketball team and its fans have experienced so far this season, be they ecstasy-inducing rivalry wins or headache-inducing blowout losses. None of those matter anymore.
NCAA Tournament time is approaching, and UNC now finds itself firmly on the bubble. Per ESPN’s Bracketology, the Tar Heels are currently slated to crash the postseason party as an 11th seed.
But that’s assuming the rest of the schedule goes how the Tar Heels would like it to. If North Carolina wants to cement its tourney status come March Madness, it needs to win now and win big.
And against the Louisville Cardinals on Saturday night, with a 99-54 slaughter of a win, the Tar Heels proved they have what it takes to stand out — everything just has to click.
“We shot the ball well, which we haven’t done very often this year, and we didn’t turn it over very much,” head coach Roy Williams said. “Those are the kinds of things that we’ve been trying to emphasize more than anything.”
For one, the first-years finally came to life, all at the same time. By game’s end, 71 of UNC’s 99 points were scored by first-years — a new school record. The youth contingent was led by big man Day’Ron Sharpe, who put together one of his most complete games as a Tar Heel yet, scoring 21 points on 10-14 shooting and notching 11 rebounds. Guard Kerwin Walton also exploded against the Cardinals, scoring 19 points, including five 3-pointers on seven attempts, and dishing out four assists.
“When the freshmen play good, the team does really good,” Sharpe said. “Our freshmen are a big part of our team... when we step our game up, it helps our team.”
This performance from the youth also contributed to the most eye-catching part of UNC's win: the team’s massive scoring output. Saturday's 99 points are the most any Tar Heel team has scored since Feb. 5, 2019, when Luke Maye led UNC to a 113-96 win over N.C. State. Tonight, though, the team had its youth to thank — of the five Tar Heels in double-digits, three were first-years.
“I just knew that my time would come,” Walton said. “I didn’t know when it was going to come, but I was for sure going to be prepared for it. And my focus was getting better every single day. I didn't really care about whether I was ranked high or whether I was ranked low. I was just worried about putting the ball in the hole, playing defense and winning games.”
But for the youth to click, the vets had to as well — and click they did. Senior guard Andrew Platek spearheaded the team’s fluid ball movement and was its top playmaker with five assists. Junior forward Leaky Black came joint-second on the team with four assists, while bigs like senior Garrison Brooks and sophomore Armando Bacot each had double-digit scoring games of their own.
And even so, the team wasn’t entirely perfect. One of its biggest weaknesses reared its ugly head yet again, with UNC going a pitiful 7-18 from the free-throw line.
“Shows how smart I am,” Williams said. “I had everybody shoot individually 300 free throws this week, with the manager counting, and everybody on the team shot above 79 percent. So that didn’t work.”
Still, the fact remains: things are starting to come together for North Carolina. Better scoring, better ball movement, better play between youth and veterans — it’s all starting to click. And just in time, too.
The Tar Heels can’t afford to take their feet off the gas now. This last stretch of games will determine the team’s position come tournament time, or if they even make the tournament at all. But despite those stakes, all you’ll hear from them is confidence.
“We know how good we are,” Walton said. “We know how good we can be. And it’s definitely shown, especially in the game we just played against Louisville. And I think it’s going to continue to go up for us.”