CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- On a day in which No. 5 North Carolina’s shots often refused to fall, the full capacity of Roy Williams’s scoring offense was visible through effective secondary options that led to a 67-55 win over N.C. State.
Roy Williams, being the avid golfer that he is, might use the analogy of golf being a game in which mitigating damage in poor rounds is equally as important as maximizing efficiency in low rounds to describe his team’s victory. While most of the talk in recent weeks has centered on the explosiveness of his offense – UNC leads the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com – Williams defeated N.C. State for the 29th time in 32 tries in a game his team likely would have lost last season.
In fact, the Tar Heels did lose this type of game last season, in this same building against this same opponent. N.C. State employed a similar strategy of slowing tempo in last year’s 58-46 win. Those 46 points represent the fewest scored by a UNC team in the Smith Center.
This time around, UNC shot 34.4 percent in the first half and 37.9 percent for the game, both season lows. The Tar Heels’ three leading scorers – Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson – were limited to 15 points on 6-of-24 shooting, while perimeter reserves Nate Britt and Theo Pinson misfired on nine of their 10 field goal attempts.
With five Tar Heels struggling to find net, junior forward Kennedy Meeks and sophomore guard Joel Berry elevated their scoring to offset the void. Meeks, starting for the first time in eight games, scored 18 of his game-high 23 points after halftime, while Berry knocked down three 3-pointers in scoring 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting. Isaiah Hicks also provided a boost in the first half, scoring eight of his 10 points in eight minutes before the break.
“You’ve got some guys that can’t throw it in the ocean from the beach, and you’re still able to squeeze out a win,” Williams said. “I do think that I always try to recruit for and coach with as much depth as I can try to build.”
There were several other elements to UNC’s victory, including a solid defensive effort in holding N.C. State’s Cat Barber to a season low nine points on 4-of-11 shooting and dominating the points off turnovers battle with a 17-4 edge. However, after Williams reminded his team of last season’s loss to N.C. State in practices this week, much of the postgame conversation was spent on the evolution of this offense ever since that defeat.
“This year, I didn’t have it going, Brice didn’t have it going and Justin didn’t have it going, but the depth and the talent offensively of this team is so much different,” Paige said. “We can survive that type of night as long as someone else steps up, and today it was Isaiah and Kennedy, especially. The difference between last year’s team and this year’s team is that we’re dynamic and flexible enough offensively to not sink in a game like that when our best players are struggling.”
UNC’s 16-2 record and 5-0 start in the ACC play – its best during the Williams era – makes it easy to overlook the fact that Saturday marked just the fourth time this season that the starting lineup has actually started a game together. Playing without key pieces and still winning confirmed the quality of this team’s depth.
“I think we proved that earlier in the season,” Britt said. “When Marcus was out, we had guys step up on the perimeter. And when Kennedy was out, we had our other bigs step up in Joel [James] and Isaiah playing a lot better. I think that just gives more confidence to the team and the coaching staff that when someone goes out, someone else will step up and get it done.”
UNC currently has six players averaging in double figures as Meeks became the fourth Tar Heels to score 20 or more points in multiple games this season.