Bench Adds Positives in Defeat

DURHAM, N.C. – After falling behind no. 4 Duke by nine points at the first media timeout, No. 15 North Carolina received an unlikely, yet significant boost from its bench.

UNC trailed 15-6 with 15:56 to play in the first half when Joel James, Isaiah Hicks and Joel Berry II subbed in. Tyus Jones pushed the lead to 11 points with a jumper on Duke’s next possession, but the Tar Heel subs matched the Blue Devils’ intensity and steadied UNC’s rocky start.

Hicks responded to Jones’s field goal with a towering alley-oop slam on a pass from J.P. Tokoto. Nate Britt subbed in for Marcus Paige at the next dead ball and scored four straight points. James then stepped to the forefront, wrapping a pair of scores on the block around solid defense that forced Jahlil Okafor into a turnover.

“Early [James] gave us some baskets inside and some toughness,” Roy Williams said after the 92-90 OT loss. “Jahlil is just a load. If you’ve got one center, he is going to foul the guy out. Joel gave us something there.”

Add in two free throws by Britt and the Tar Heel reserves scored 12 straight points, and more importantly, had held serve against Duke over a five-minute span. Their play had a calming effect on their teammates as UNC cut its deficit to 49-42 at halftime.

Britt, Hicks and James were the only three Tar Heels to post positive plus-minus stats in the first half. Berry was next best at minus-1.

The reserves delivered a similar stretch after halftime. With UNC holding a 68-62 lead with 6:59 to play, the bench scored the next nine points to push the margin to 10 with 3:51 to play. During that scoring spurt, Hicks scored on a layup, Berry drained a 3-pointer and Britt penetrated on consecutive possessions for lay-ins.

“I feel like everybody who went out on the court played their hardest,” Hicks said. “Everybody that stepped out on the court was ready to play. We had no letdown from anybody that was out there, and that’s what we need to have all year.”

Hicks led the reserves with 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting and three rebounds. Britt scored 11 points and James added six points and five rebounds. Berry’s lone score was the 3-ball on six field goal attempts, but his presence was felt at the point with five assists and two steals against just one turnover.

UNC’s bench outscored Duke’s reserves, 32-7.

“They did a good job,” Paige said. “The entire team really battled from an effort standpoint. We had six or seven of our rotation guys playing really well. With the exception of myself, everyone came and brought their A-game. That’s why we were in the position we were in.

“I’ve got to give credit to Joel [James] for coming in, battling and competing, and getting a couple of baskets. Joel [Berry] played hard and played well. He’s still getting back from missing eight games, so those are really bright spots.”

There were mistakes as well. Hicks had a costly turnover against Duke’s press in overtime. Britt missed the front end of a one-and-one with UNC clinging to a lead late in regulation.

Williams harps on the need for his reserves to add something, to help the team, when they sub in. That charge was met on Wednesday night at Cameron Indoor.

“Everybody left it all out there; competed,” Paige said. “Everyone was bought in. that’s the way we’re supposed to play. You see what can happen when we play that way.”

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