The Tar Heels survived a sluggish stretch after halftime, getting an emotional boost from their Hall of Fame head coach in their 86-64 victory over William & Mary on Tuesday night.
The game was UNC’s final tuneup before Atlantic Coast Conference play, which begins Saturday night with a game at Clemson.
“Once conference play starts, it’s a whole different level,” said UNC guard Nate Britt, who scored a season-high 11 points. “These little mistakes that we’re making, we can’t keep doing that. We have to learn from it and get better.”
The Tar Heels (10-3) were cruising after a 3-pointer by J.P. Tokoto increased their lead to 52-27 with 18:39 remaining in the game. But William & Mary (6-5) answered with an 11-1 spurt to climb back into contention.
That rally set the stage for a wild sequence in which UNC coach Roy Williams, already frustrated with his team’s poor play, received a technical foul.
With 11:14 remaining, officials Jamie Luckie and Andrew Marotta blew their whistles simultaneously. Marotta signaled for a charging foul against William & Mary, but Luckie overruled him after a conference and called a blocking foul on the Tar Heels.
Williams watched the replay on the video board and signaled that he wanted a timeout. He began yelling in the direction of UNC freshman Theo Pinson that he wanted a timeout, and he stomped his foot toward Pinson to make his point. Official Louie Andrakakos was standing in the same general direction from Williams as Pinson, and Luckie called a technical foul from across the court after seeing the events unfold.
“I was yelling at Theo,” Williams said. “I was yelling at Theo, saying ‘call timeout.’ And he’s pointing at me like ‘I can’t call a timeout.’ I didn’t think I was dealt with fairly, but that’s all right. Those guys have a hard, hard job. A hard, hard job.”
Williams took off his jacket in frustration and tried to explain himself to the officials. After UNC’s timeout, Marcus Thornton made the technical free throws to cut UNC’s lead to 61-49. The Tribe eventually got within 68-59 on a 3-pointer by Daniel Dixon before Britt and Marcus Paige combined to score UNC’s next 13 points as the Tar Heels pulled away.
“It fired us up,” Tokoto said of Williams’ outburst. “We used that as energy.”
The issue for the Tar Heels is that they needed an external spark in order to complete a blowout of an undermanned opponent.
Britt characterized the team’s play after halftime as “lazy,” and Paige said that the team’s effort level “dipped way too far to start the second half.”
Williams, meanwhile, said he didn’t know how he felt about his team heading into the start of league play.
“Human nature is, 25-point lead, maybe you’re not going to focus as much,” Williams said. “But I’m not coaching just to try to win a game. I’m trying to coach to make this team the best basketball team we can be.”
For a half, the Tar Heels were great. They shot 66 percent from the floor in the first half and executed their defensive game plan of closing out on William & Mary’s perimeter shooters.
But one half, as multiple players noted afterward, isn’t going to be enough in ACC play.
The Tar Heels would do well to consider the second half of their nonconference finale as their wakeup call.
“We can be great,” Tokoto said. “We just have to be consistent. That was the thing last year. Starting out in ACC play, we went 0-3. After that, we had a couple of guys who just kind of picked up the team and took it by the reins and showed everybody that this is how we have to play to be a great team.
“We’re kind of looking to do the same thing, except quicker. We don’t want to take three games to figure it out.”
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