The phrase “Go big or go home” can summarize UNC basketball’s strategy so far this season, which has utilized versatile frontcourt playmakers to determine the tide of its games.
But, in the Conte Forum against Boston College on Sunday, it was playing small that paved the way for Tar Heels to pick up a 26-point win, 91-65, to improve to 2-0 in conference play.
There were logistical concerns in the lead-up to the match, as it had already been pushed back a day due to COVID-19 issues on the Eagles’ side. North Carolina met another roadblock when it was announced that junior forward Justin McKoy would be unavailable off the bench — also due to COVID-19.
Shaking off the rust from not playing a game in 12 days, the Tar Heels struggled to connect early and fell behind four points before starting sophomore forward Dawson Garcia was subbed out due to a head injury. With only three rotation bigs left in the lineup — junior center Armando Bacot, senior forward Leaky Black and graduate forward Brady Manek — North Carolina was forced to make some adjustments.
Bringing in Manek, sophomore guard Kerwin Walton and redshirt sophomore guard Anthony Harris, UNC went on a nine-point run to take the lead, which they kept for the rest of the game.
“Today we were down a couple players and we had a smaller rotation with the bigs,” Manek said. “We had a kind of a mismatch on the offensive end but we kept attacking on them and we kept scoring on them.”
North Carolina continued to post impressive statistics on both sides of the court. Stopping the ball and limiting points in the paint were two of the team’s goals on the defensive end, and UNC’s improved man-to-man defense and controlled tempo helped the team build a lead as large as 36 points.
To cover Garcia's absence, Black played the floor, combined with Bacot and Manek to total 24 rebounds between the three bigs.
UNC’s proficiency in the backcourt, though, ultimately led to its dominance throughout the game. Six players converted opportunities outside of the arc, which brought the team’s 3-point percentage to 47.8. Sophomore guard Caleb Love was fundamental in this effort, as he matched his season-high of 22 points and added four triples.
“Coach said as we move the ball then we're gonna get over shots,” Love said. “And that's what happened, I got over shots because my teammates created them for me.”
Love even created an opportunity for Bacot, who nailed his first 3-pointer of the season.
“We (Love and Bacot) were talking about he said he's gonna get a three this game and I told him I’d set him up for it,” Love said. “So when I passed it to him, I told him to shoot it. And then once he made it, I told him ‘I told you,’ and he started laughing.”
UNC had trained to sustain energy, effort and toughness — the team's three-word foundation for the season — for almost two weeks to prepare for this game, as well as its tough conference schedule ahead.
But re-establishing its frontcourt and backcourt balance when the unexpected occurred spoke to the character and improvement of the team as a whole.
“I don't know what's going to happen, with the status of Dawson, the status of Justin and our next game against Notre Dame,” head coach Hubert Davis said. “But it's nice going into that game and understanding that we do have that flexibility and versatility of being able to go big and small and really be able to be good on both ends of the floor.”
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