With one team on the edge of the top-25 and the other just outside of it, the early season matchup between the North Carolina Tar Heels and No. 24 Michigan Wolverines served as a way for both schools to establish themselves in the rankings and pick up a notable win.
For the Wolverines, a team ranked as high as No. 4 before dropping two games, a road win against a comparable UNC team could get the team moving in the right direction again.
North Carolina came up just shy in a loss against No. 2 Purdue, and couldn’t keep up the next day against No. 13 Tennessee at the Hall of Fame tip-off. Beating a nationally-ranked team would do UNC wonders, and the Tar Heels knew it.
“It’s just been hell these last two weeks, we’ve just been itching to play a top team,” junior center Armando Bacot said.
The Dean Smith Center was as lively as it had been all season, with the primetime Big Ten/ACC matchup packing the arena to near capacity. The atmosphere in Chapel Hill had everything needed for a big college basketball game, even a Dick Vitale cameo.
And when national ranking hopes came calling, the Tar Heels answered, topping the Wolverines, 72-51.
There seemed to be a renewed swagger from the team, with fast-break dunks and long-range shots from sophomore guard Caleb Love igniting the team throughout. Deflections and steals disrupted the Michigan offense, as the team buckled down as a group on that side of the ball.
“This past week, we’ve been working on our principles,” Love said. “We’re sticking to those and staying in active gaps and just playing our game.”
Though both teams struggled in the first half – UNC led just 29-27 – the team picked it up in the second half with 43 points and limited Michigan coach Juwan Howard's team to just 24.
Though five players averaged double-digit points for UNC coming into the game, defense continued to be a point of emphasis for first-year head coach Hubert Davis’ squad. Dropping both games in the Hall of Fame tip-off gave the team a renewed sense of urgency going into last week’s game against Asheville. Wednesday, though, presented a much tougher challenge on paper for the Tar Heels.
Davis was pleased with how his team performed in practice on Tuesday, calling it the best one of the year. This, to him, naturally carried over on the court.
“The energy and effort on the defense end was great,” Davis said. “On the offensive end, we were sharing the basketball and were excited about other teammates’ success.”
Wednesday night’s win was not only the most impressive win from UNC this season, but one of few notable victories in the last few seasons. In the two seasons prior to this one, North Carolina topped just three ranked opponents.
“We’re a very talented team, but putting it together, we got a lot of new faces,” Bacot said. “It’s not gonna be easy starting off, but this is definitely something good to build off of.”
With conference play approaching, the team seems to be turning a corner on its season. A win against No. 24 Michigan likely puts UNC back in the top-25, or at the very least, puts them in position to do so in the coming weeks. The win against the Wolverines may serve as a gauge on how the team can compete.
Last game, graduate transfer forward Brady Manek spoke to the need for the team to play a complete game on both ends of the court. The Tar Heels did so on Wednesday, breezing past a strong opponent by 21 points.
“If we can build off this and keep defending the way we did today but also making outside shots and scoring on the inside, we can be a really good team,” Bacot said.
Though he felt it was a big win, Davis kept UNC’s victory over Michigan in perspective after the game.
“This was a great win for us, but it was the seventh game of a long season,” Davis said. “We’re very excited and happy with the win tonight, but it’s one game.”
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