At times, UNC resembled a Final Four-caliber team on Friday when it controlled the tempo through defense and transition. Other times, however, the Tar Heels resembled last season’s squad when the defensive intensity waned and the halfcourt offense was tasked with operating against NCCU’s zone defense.
UNC opened the season with an 11-0 run and built a 15-2 lead with its defense, scoring six points off five NCCU turnovers and holding the Eagles to 7.7 percent shooting (1-of-13) through the opening 10 minutes of play. The Tar Heels converted 46 percent of its field goal attempts (6-of-13) over the same span.
N.C. Central head coach LeVelle Moton slowed the tempo by running the clock early in the shot clock and switching to a zone defense. His plan worked as roughly a third of UNC’s first-half possessions came in the opening five minutes.
“We really didn’t get a good tempo going,” forward Kennedy Meeks told reporters following the game. “They slowed us down with their sets and we kind of fell into it.”
The Tar Heels countered the zone initially by settling for outside shots. UNC missed six of its seven 3-pointers in the first half and shot 18.2 percent (2-of-11) for the game.
“I think we tried to hit too many home runs on the offensive end of the floor,” Williams said.
N.C. Central, which returned just one starter from last season’s NCAA Tournament run, stayed within reach for most of the game. The Tar Heels led 28-19 at halftime and held a 12-point margin with under nine minutes to play.
UNC employed its halfcourt traps and fullcourt press in the second half to ratchet up the tempo. Williams described the pressure as “okay, but not great,” which is to be expected this early in the season.
“We’ve been trying to work on our foundation,” Williams said. “North Carolina, as long as I’ve been here, even as an assistant or a head coach, our foundation is our running game, our halfcourt pressure defense and our freelance. And that’s what we’ve spent the majority of the time on.”
Brice Johnson led UNC with 12 points and eight rebounds, while Meeks and J.P. Tokoto both added 10 points. Preseason All-American guard Marcus Paige was limited to eight points on 2-of-8 shooting.
Paige wasn’t worried about the low scoring output, but said he would like to be more active in the offense and get more touches. He added that UNC hasn’t spent much time working on junk defenses such as the box-and-1 NCCU ran against him.
“The thing that I was curious about was getting our guys to understand Marcus is a pretty doggone good player,” Williams said. “[When] the other team is playing a box-and-1 sometimes, it’d probably be good to have some guys go set screens for him and help him out a little bit. That wouldn’t be the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen anybody do.”
The Tar Heels were sloppy at times. They forced some shots and their effort was inconsistent for stretches on the defensive end. All are teachable moments, however, emerging from a season-opening win against a solid mid-major opponent. There were also plenty of positives coming out of the victory.
“We’re still sharing the ball; that’s one thing that this team does a great job of,” Paige said. “We ran okay at times and even though we didn’t score a lot in the first half, our defense was pretty good despite a couple of lapses here and there.
“Our foundation is in place. We just need to fine tune some things, I suppose, and just make sure we’re executing a little bit better, especially offensively.”
UNC improved to 98-7 in home openers and has now won 10 consecutive openers in a row.
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