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UNC Asheville (0-2) harnessed the energy of a stoked sellout crowd to build an early 14-9 lead. North Carolina (2-0) responded with a 10-0 spurt to gain control at 19-14, but the Bulldogs refused to be intimidated, battling back on several occasions to cut into UNC's margin.
Asheville sliced its deficit to 38-36 with three minutes to play before halftime with a 10-3 run, but the Tar Heels answered with their own 10-3 spurt to take a 48-39 advantage into the break. UNC extended that run to 23-6 with a 13-3 start to the second half.
The Tar Heels led 66-46 with 13:07 left to play, but the Bulldogs fought back to get within 85-73 with 3:05 to play.
Tyler Zeller scored a game-high 27 points to go along with eight rebounds, while John Henson posted a double-double with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Harrison Barnes added 17 points despite committing six turnovers.
Kendall Marshall dished out 15 assists, which stands as fifth-best in school history and the most-ever in a true road game.
J.P. Primm led Asheville with 23 points and Jaron Lane added 21. Big South Preseason Player of the Year Matt Dickey was held to 14 points on 4-of-14 shooting.
North Carolina blistered the nets with a 59.3 shooting percentage on 32-of-54 shooting (2-of-7 on 3-pointers). Asheville shot 39.7 percent (25-of-63), including a 28.6 mark (8-of-28) from long range. The Bulldogs forced 17 turnovers while only committing 10.
INSIDE THE GAME
Surviving the Road Test
If you were looking for the definition of a trap game, Sunday's contest against the Bulldogs provided a thorough example.
After an emotional 48 hours in San Diego that culminated with a hard-fought victory over Michigan State, the Tar Heels returned to their team hotel for a quick shower before hopping a red-eye to Asheville. Combine that with UNC Asheville opening Kimmel Arena in front of a sold-out crowd of 3,200 on Sunday and a UNC upset became a legitimate, however remote, possibility.
Credit the Bulldog fan base for creating a boisterous atmosphere that inspired their team. Questions arose last week about how North Carolina would be able to respond in this game following the Carrier Classic, so it wasn't surprising that the Tar Heels were sluggish early and unable to match Asheville's intensity off the tip.
UNC's miscues came fast and furious in the opening minutes – Zeller missed a dunk, Justin Watts missed a layup, several shots clanged off the front of the rim and questionable shot selection allowed the energized Bulldogs to claim a 14-9 lead and keep the game close until the final minutes of the first half.
By then North Carolina had discarded its sea legs and its sheer talent took over in building a 20-point lead early in the second half.
UNC head coach Roy Williams and his players shot down the notion that physical weariness played a role in the slow start.
"We try to condition pretty hard," Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference. "As much as we like to run, you have to practice doing that."
There's no doubt that the Tar Heels were zapped emotionally following their trip out west, however.
"After that trip, I felt I was halfway through the season," Marshall said. "It was a very emotional trip; mentally draining. But I think if you want to be a great team, you have to learn how to persevere through these things and figure out ways to win."
North Carolina now has a week off before hosting Mississippi Valley State in Las Vegas Invitational early round action next Sunday at 2pm in Chapel Hill.
North Carolina's front line of Zeller, Henson and Barnes averages 6-foot-10. Asheville's frontcourt of Chris Stephenson, Jaron Lane and Quinard Jackson averages 6-foot-4.
There was little debate coming into Sunday's game how North Carolina would win this game and that's exactly how events played out.
"When we have that size advantage, I think we're stupid to shoot 25 threes," Williams said. "So we do want John and Harrison and ‘Z' – when you look, they were the only guys that got into double figures. They took 34 shots between them, but they scored 27, 20 and 17 between them. You don't have to be a nuclear physicist to figure out that's pretty good."
Asheville managed to build its early lead and stay close for the bulk of the first half by competing on the backboards, trailing only 11-9 in that department roughly 10 minutes into the game. That differential grew to 23-16 by halftime and UNC ultimately posted a 41-27 edge.
Asheville matched UNC in the offensive rebound category (8-8), but also had 16 more opportunities on the offensive glass.
Expectations Run Wild
Talk of a third national title in eight years has simmered ever since Zeller, Barnes and Henson decided to return to UNC last summer and the closing minutes of Sunday's game provided a good example of what the Tar Heels will encounter throughout the season.
With North Carolina holding a 90-73 lead with 1:27 remaining, the UNC Asheville student section started chanting, "overrated."
That speaks volumes considering the Bulldogs are preseason favorites to win the Big South Conference championship after a trip to the NCAA Tournament last March.
"It's just their opinion," Zeller said. "You've just got to take it for what it is. Many people have opinions. It's something that we probably could have won by more, but at the same time, they're a great time and they shot well. You've got to give them credit."
Spoken like a young man well-versed in handling the joys of the road.