For much of this season, the North Carolina men’s basketball team’s bench has been underwhelming.
The numbers don’t lie — out of the 352 Division I basketball teams, UNC ranked 333rd with under 13 bench points per game.
But on Saturday, the Tar Heels' bench scored 25 points in a decisive 91-71 victory over Clemson to snap a three-game losing skid. When asked if he was more inclined to play his reserves to give his starters more rest for Monday’s game against No. 19 Miami, head coach Hubert Davis clarified his thought process.
“I was thinking about winning,” Davis said. “I wanted us to win. If that meant five guys would play 40 minutes, it is what it is. Clemson is such a good basketball team, so we had to bring our best today.”
For the first seven minutes, North Carolina struggled to hit shots and trailed Clemson by three points. Then, Hubert Davis decided to sideline his two most consistent scorers in senior forward Armando Bacot and junior guard RJ Davis, along with graduate transfer forward Pete Nance — who averages double figures.
Sophomore guard D’Marco Dunn and forwards Jalen Washington and Puff Johnson entered the game and immediately made an impact. On Washington’s first touch of the game, the first-year big man faced up on the baseline and hit a contested jumper without taking a dribble.
A minute later, it was Dunn’s turn. With the shot clock expiring and nowhere to go, the sophomore crossed over to his right, hesitated, then muscled his way through two orange jerseys for a lofty shot off the glass.
On the next play, Johnson drove baseline and skipped a pass to Dunn, who attacked the basket, drew two defenders and dumped it off to Washington for an emphatic two-handed jam that gave the Tar Heels an early 16-15 lead.
“We knew that our backs were against the wall,” Johnson said. “We knew we had to play with a sense of desperation, as if it was March or early April. We talked amongst ourselves about how when anyone on the bench comes in, they gotta bring as much energy as possible because they’re fresh.”
The sequence helped stir UNC’s starters into action. Junior guard Caleb Love sank back-to-back threes to cap off an 11-2 scoring run, and the Tigers never led again.
There seemed to be a heightened sense of trust in the bench, which was especially evident in Love’s play. Even though the guard was prolific from long range early on, he uncharacteristically passed to Johnson toward the end of the first half instead of taking a wide-open 3-pointer.
The junior wing missed the shot, but Johnson said Love continued to instill confidence in him in the locker room at halftime and encouraged him to keep shooting.
“It’s huge for us that we can put those guys in and trust them to go out there and make plays and give us a chance to just rest,” Bacot said. “I thought they were huge today and really affected the game.”
Nance split minutes with Johnson throughout the game, who had five second-half points, including a 3-pointer. If Saturday was any indication, Johnson subbing in for Nance — who admitted that he’s been ‘in a shooting slump’ — could be integral to North Carolina’s success in the coming weeks.
Because of Bacot and Nance’s injuries earlier in the season, Hubert Davis had ample time to test out different lineups and develop younger players by giving them irreplaceable game experience. With crucial matchups against Miami, N.C. State and Virginia on the horizon, North Carolina’s bench presence — or absence — could potentially determine the Tar Heels’ success.
“We’ve all played with each other enough this year that we know how to gel together,” Johnson said. “When our number is called upon, we just have to be ready.”
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