The Cougars snared 23 offensive rebounds, leading to 16 second chance points, and held off scrappy and once-heralded North Carolina, 66-60, before a sparse crowd of 9,713 on the opening night of the Hardee's Tournament of Champions at the Charlotte Coliseum on Friday.
The Cougars, who lost on their home floor to Belmont Abbey two weeks ago, weren't just snagging long offensive boards, they also grabbed short misses, and in the process made up for a 25-69 (36.2%) night from the field.
"I don't know what the number was," said Jason Capel, referring to the total edge of 54-37 that COC had. "But they beat us on the boards, clearly."
The Tar Heels took a 37-35 lead after opening the second half with a 9-2 spurt engineered by increased intensity on defense. Charleston, however, stayed with the Heels as its first three buckets of the half followed misses, and the teams battled to a 39-39 tie with 14:57 left in the game.
That's when the Tar Heels went even colder from the field. UNC managed just two field goals and six points over the next 7:20 and trailed 53-45 before Capel (14 points, 10 rebounds, four assists) drained his second 3 of the game with 7:35 left in the contest.
"It's puzzling, but maybe it's not with some young kids," Doherty said. "Jackie (Manuel) has been shooting the ball well in practice, and he goes 0-for-9. Brian Morrison is one of our better shooters, and he goes 1-for-9. But we are better shooters. I am going to stop saying that because until you do it in a game, you're not good shooters. Someday, we'll start making them, and when we do, we'll win some games."
UNC battled back to cut the margin to 48-45 on a pair of free throws from Will Johnson (14 points), but COC once again extended the lead to eight on a 3-pointer by Troy Wheless (21 points) and a pair of free throws, much to the exasperation to the Tar Heels and head coach Matt Doherty.
Carolina, however, just couldn't combine a series of offensive possessions with defensive stops and ended the game intentionally fouling in desperation.
But in the end it was Charleston's dominance on the glass that conquered the Heels. It wasn't Carolina's wretched 29.4% shooting form the field in the second half (32.8% for the game), including only 10 made two-point field goals. It wasn't UNC's seven second-half turnovers. And it wasn't for lack of effort.
As is always the case, the Heels played hard and did an admirable job utilizing a jump-trap defense intermittently throughout the game. The active defense, however, may have prevented COC from getting quality shots on a consistent basis, but it also contributed to the margin on the glass.
"I feel like we're doing a good job with that. I think it did disrupt our defensive rebounding because our defense isn't set," Doherty said. "If we weren't in a man to man, we were scrambling, trying to get into the box-out positions and we got to the ball a little late. They have some big strong kids. So, we're doing a good job but that contributes to giving up the offensive rebounds.
For the game, Charleston outrebounded Carolina 54-37.
Melvin Scott was the only other Tar Heel in double figures with 11 points. Kris Lang, battling an ailing knee ligament, added seven points and six rebounds. Other than Wheless' output, COC was lead by Jeff Bolton (18 points) and Shannon Chamber (11).
Charleston improved to 7-1 on the season while North Carolina, which lost to Charleston in the 1998 title game of this tournament, dropped to 2-5. Charleston will play Georgia State, a 95-90 winner over No. 15 St. Joseph's, in the championship game on Saturday. UNC and St. Joe's will meet in the consolation game.
Johnson opened the scoring for the Tar Heels by knocking down a pair of 3-pointers and after a Lang free throw UNC trailed 8-7. But the Cougars then went on a 12-5 run aided by three Carolina turnovers.
Charleston's lead grew to 11 at 27-16 with 6:52 left in the half as the Heels weren't rotating well defensively, allowing the Cougars to drill a pair of 3s and knock down two other uncontested jumper.
As for the struggling Heels, at what point is the diminishing return going to take its toll?
"That's the tough thing about athletics – you give it everything you've got and sometimes it's not good enough to win," Johnson said. "That's the risk you take as an athlete. I feel like we're giving good effort and committing ourselves. It's frustrating to lose."
Andrew Jones is in his sixth year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He is also in his fourth year as a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a nightly radio show on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and once published The College Game and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at: AJWAAV@aol.com.