As junior forward Puff Johnson skied up for a dunk with 7:23 left in Saturday's game against Notre Dame, he was unaware that Fighting Irish guard Cormac Ryan was trailing right behind him.
When Johnson landed, he fell to the ground and felt a kick to the head. He said he didn’t see what happened after, but when Johnson got up, junior guard Caleb Love was in the face of Ryan telling him to not do it again.
This moment set the tone for the rest of the game, with UNC reclaiming a double-digit lead and going on to pick up an 81-64 win.
“The amount of time that this team spends together really shows on the court,” Johnson said. “I didn’t even know what happened, but he still had my back. Knowing that my team has my back, it means a lot.”
As Johnson alluded to, the “I got your back” mentality from the Tar Heels was on full display — especially in their ball movement.
Since losing to Indiana and Virginia Tech earlier in the season and recording a combined 11 assists in both contests, UNC has emphasized finding open shots. In every game since, the Tar Heels have recorded 12 assists or more, including 19 on Saturday with four coming from senior forward Armando Bacot.
With graduate forward Pete Nance out with a sore back, Bacot was getting double-teamed more often than usual. However, he still found a way to record his fifth 20-point, 10-rebound game of the season, recording his second-highest assist total of the campaign.
“Instead of making the easy pass to the person in front of me, I was trying to make the skip pass and get the assist,” Bacot said. “Coach (Sean May) has done a really good job of telling me to just make the simple pass and allowing them to make the great pass. Today I felt like I did a good job seeing the wide-open pass — which was a skip pass — and also making the simple pass.”
With Nance out, first-year guard Seth Trimble made his first start for North Carolina and was able to help out his teammates on both sides of the court. Although he scored just three points in his starting debut for the Tar Heels, he recorded three rebounds, four assists, and blocked two shots to showcase his versatility.
“He’s extremely athletic and quick and he has the ability to defend even bigger offensive players, it’s very difficult to even post him up,” head coach Hubert Davis said. “He’s really special on the defensive end. On the offensive end, he’s becoming more comfortable and more confident.”
Making smart plays on both sides of the court will determine how far the team can go this season. And moments like the altercation between Love and Ryan highlight the togetherness that North Carolina needs to be a winning team.
“I love our team standing up for each other,” Davis said. “Caleb standing up for Puff, I support that, I encourage that every day.”
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