UNC has much to fix be­fore fac­ing Gon­zaga

The Charlotte Observer - - Front Page - BY JONATHAN M. ALEXAN­DER

jalexan­[email protected]­sob­server.com

As North Carolina’s Kenny Wil­liams was in­ter­viewed by re­porters late Wed­nes­day night, a flat screen tele­vi­sion a few feet to the right of him showed No. 1 Gon­zaga live in its game against Wash­ing­ton.

The game, which was be­ing shown on the big screen, sig­ni­fied what’s loom­ing.

On Dec. 15, No. 14 UNC will play Gon­zaga (9- 0) for the first time since it beat the Bull­dogs in the 2017 NCAA Na­tional Cham­pi­onship game, 71- 65.

When the two teams played then, the Tar Heels were the fa­vorite. But this sea­son, the Tar Heels ( 7-2) will likely en­ter as un­der­dogs.

It will be UNC’s big­gest test of the sea­son through nine games.

“It could be a mar­quee win that goes a long way,” said Wil­liams, a se­nior guard. “Be­cause they’re go­ing to be be top-five all sea­son, be­cause they are a great team. If we can pick up a win like that, it will be huge for us come tour­na­ment time.”

The Tar Heels are in need of a big win, es­pe­cially after strug­gling late in Novem­ber. Be­fore Wed­nes­day’s 97- 69 win over UNCW, UNC had lost two of its last three games, in­clud­ing a 84- 67 road loss to then-No. 7 Michi­gan. Its head coach, Roy Wil­liams, had ques­tioned his team’s ef­fort in the loss to the Wolver­ines.

When asked about his team’s ef­fort in their win on Wed­nes­day, coach Wil­liams said it was bet­ter than the Michi­gan game, “but not what we want it to be.”

The Tar Heels beat the Sea­hawks by nearly 30 points, but they got off to a slow start.

In the first half, they ap­peared lethar­gic. They turned the ball over nine times, which was on pace to tie a sea­son high, and at half­time, the Tar Heels led the Sea­hawks by nine points. UNCW man­aged to cut UNC’s lead to five points early in the sec­ond half.

“They came out and made two shots early and it was like we have to buckle down,” said grad­u­ate se­nior Cam John­son, who fin­ished with 21 points on 7-for-14 shoot­ing Wed­nes­day.

UNC seemed to miss fresh­man point guard Coby White, who was out with a sore an­kle. White, who is av­er­ag­ing bet­ter than 15 points per game, had been UNC’s lead­ing scorer over its last three games. Ju­nior guard Sev­enth Woods re­placed him in the start­ing lineup and scored seven points and had three as­sists.

UNC would even­tu­ally an­swer UNCW with a 16- 0 run, which ul­ti­mately put the game out of reach. But the slow start to Wed­nes­day’s game mag­ni­fied the chal­lenges UNC faces be­fore it plays a team many per­ceive to be the best in the coun­try. The same is­sues that have plagued UNC in its losses to Texas and Michi­gan reap­peared in the first half against UNCW.

Along with UNC’s nine first-half turnovers, UNCW had nine points off turnovers. The Sea­hawks also at­tempted 11 free throws in the first half, while the Tar Heels had four. That was one thing coach Wil­liams said he was not pleased with.

“If you’re go­ing to play bas­ket­ball, you’re sup­posed to go to the free throw line, make free throw and keep the other team off the free throw line,” he said.

The Tar Heels have had trou­ble stay­ing in front of their man on de­fense. It has re­sulted in poor fouls, and the Tar Heels send­ing their op­po­nents to the free throw line too of­ten.

UNC has at­tempted less free throws than its op­po­nents in three games this sea­son.

The Tar Heels are 1-2 in those games with losses to Texas and Michi­gan. Last week, Michi­gan had 23 free throw at­tempts, while UNC had 13. Against Texas on Nov. 24, the Longhorns had 29 free throw at­tempts, while the Tar Heels had 21.

Gon­zaga av­er­ages 98.4 points per game, which is the sec­ond high­est in the coun­try. A big rea­son for that is be­cause its play­ers get to the free throw line of­ten. The Bull­dogs av­er­age 27 free throw at­tempts per game.

Dur­ing ex­ams, which be­gin on Fri­day, the Tar Heels won’t prac­tice much be­fore the Gon­zaga game. But they hope to make the few prac­tices they do have count.

Fresh­man wing Nas­sir Lit­tle, who had 14 points Wed­nes­day, was one of the many play­ers not sat­is­fied with how the team played. He said the Tar Heels need to com­pete harder.

“I feel like if we just come out there ready to play, and we go play with pas­sion and heart, I think we can beat any­body in the coun­try,” he said, adding that they have to get a lot bet­ter.

“I’m (gonna) be hon­est, I feel like we have a lot to fo­cus in on, in or­der to com­pete with Gon­zaga and win, be­cause they are a good team.”

ROBERT WIL­LETT rwil­[email protected]­sob­server.com

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