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Wednesday February 8th

No. 1 UNC men's basketball overcomes offensive struggles, defeats UNCW in season opener

UNC graduate forward Pete Nance (22) prepares to pass the ball to a teammate during the men's basketball game against UNCW on Monday, Nov. 7, 2022 at the Dean Smith Center. UNC beat UNCW 69-56.
Buy Photos UNC graduate forward Pete Nance (22) prepares to pass the ball to a teammate during the men's basketball game against UNCW on Monday, Nov. 7, 2022 at the Dean Smith Center. UNC beat UNCW 69-56.

Four returning starters from a national runner-up doesn’t guarantee anything — especially a seamless transition.

In North Carolina's season opener against UNCW, a contest that saw the Tar Heels trudge their way to a 69-56 victory, UNC showcased just how far it has to go to return to the sport’s biggest stage.

For the first time since 2015, North Carolina entered a season ranked atop the preseason polls. With the increased expectation came new buzz, most notably displayed by the nearly 20,000 fans who packed inside the Dean E. Smith Center on Monday to create what many players described as an ‘ACC play-like environment.’ 

“I’m not going to lie, there were a little bit more people there than I expected to be,” fifth-year senior forward Leaky Black said. “I’m more accustomed to there (being fewer fans) out there on game one.”

Playing in his first game with North Carolina, graduate transfer forward Pete Nance voiced some of the same sentiments toward the electric crowd — namely the over four thousand students who scaled up the rafters of the Smith Center. 

”In the huddle I remember — right before the game during the starting lineups — I remember just not being able to stop smiling,” Nance said. “There was so much energy and so much adrenaline in the building that I’m just not used to at all.”

From the start, though, it was the Seahawks that seemed to come out with more energy. 

UNCW’s 1-2-2 full-court press slowed down the pace and created havoc for the Tar Heels in the backcourt, which helped the Seahawks open up an early six-point lead. The Seahawks displayed similar attention to defense in halfcourt sets, aggressively fighting through off-ball screens to stifle North Carolina’s horn set. 

“We kind of got a little bit stagnant in the first half,” junior guard RJ Davis said. “I looked up at halftime and saw we only had one assist from Armando and I was like, ‘We’ve got to change that.’”

To head coach Hubert Davis, UNC’s night-long struggles on offense came due to a plethora of factors. 

“I know we have a veteran group, but it was their first game,” he said. “I just felt like a lot of it was a result of a combination of being nervous and being anxious.”

Of course, there were still moments that showcased why many believe this team has a chance to play in April.

RJ Davis sliced his way through the Seahawks’ defense and finished at the cup with an array of floaters. Caleb Love knocked down a patented stepback from distance, and Nance connected with Armando Bacot on a high-low set, giving the Tar Heels a vintage look and exemplifying the early development of UNC’s new frontcourt.

“I think it’s only going to continue to get better and better,” Nance said. “I’m going to continue to look for (Bacot) and continue to find him. I think he’s the best big man in the country.”

But whether it's getting out-rebounded and allowing 14 second-chance points or dishing out a mere four assists — UNC’s lowest single-game total since 1980 — North Carolina’s opening win certainly left more questions on the table than one may assume for the preseason No. 1 team.

Yet, the questions aren’t about whether this team has the pieces to replicate another deep postseason run. Rather, it's when — and if — it can all come together.

“Right now, it’d be shocking to me if we were the team that we’re going to be towards the end of the season,” Davis said. “(Tonight) gives us a really good baseline on things we need to improve on and get better at.”

@evanr0gers

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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