No. 1 North Carolina played Portland on Thursday to open the Phil Knight Invitational like it won’t be keeping that top ranking much longer.
Had the Tar Heels not played so unevenly in their first four games this season, the 10 a.m. local tipoff time at the Moda Center may have been a reasonable excuse for their lethargic play in spots. But this has been a pretty consistent pattern for Carolina.
The Heels (5-0) survived their Thanksgiving Day matinee with an 89-81 win, and faced Iowa State on Friday. But they likely won’t get out of the weekend without a loss unless their execution improves.
“It’s the same thing we’ve been doing this entire year, just coming out slow, getting punched in the mouth and then having to fight back,” UNC forward Leaky Black said. “It’s just the same story every game. We’re just coming out flat right now. We just got to figure that out.”
Carolina entered the game allowing its opponents to shoot just 29 percent from 3. The Pilots knocked down seven of their 16 attempts in the first half and trailed just 40-38.
Portland grabbed the lead early in the second half and kept it for most of the way until Leaky Black made a 3-pointer from the left corner off an R.J. Davis assist top put UNC ahead for good 76-75 with 4:19 left.
UNC coach Hubert Davis said he wasn’t at all surprised that Portland (4-3) pushed the Heels.
“It’s interesting, the position that we’re in people have an expectation of how it should look,” Davis said. “And so we’re supposed to be up by 20 at halftime. We’re supposed to win every game by 30. No, we’re supposed to compete and play hard and continue to improve and see what kind of team we can become.”
The frustrating part for Davis is already knowing the answer. The Heels were ranked No. 1 for a reason. The talent throughout the starting lineup was readily on display on Thursday.
Junior guard Caleb Love carried the Heels in the first half, scoring 16 of his 23 points on 7-for-9 shooting from the field.
Northwestern transfer Pete Nance energized the Heels in the second half, scoring 20 of his career-high tying 28 points. He also set a new career best making five 3-pointers.
And when Carolina finally seemed to “get serious” on defense is when it took over the game. Portland had a 64-63 lead and had been efficient in its after timeout (ATO) plays all game.
But the Heels were crisp in their defense, calling out switches and ultimately Nance blocked an Alden Applewhite shot out of bounds. Love then contested a Jack Perry forced 3-pointer as the shot clock expired.
Though the Pilots started the second half shooting 9-for-15 from the field, from that possession on, UNC limited them to just 6-of-18 shooting.
“It’s bigger than wins losses, I want us to consistently compete,” Davis said. “And for the first five games, it’s been there for half. It’s been there for moments, but it hasn’t been there for a full 40 minutes on both ends of the floor.”
Going off script
Much of Davis’s frustration was aimed at Carolina’s tendency to waver from the scouting report. He didn’t say how often they did, but added it was too many times for his liking.
“We were doing things consistently throughout the game that we haven’t worked on at practice,” Davis said. “… When you do that and you go off the script, it’s not even successful. So I don’t understand that. And so that’s something that I did address and we’ll be better tomorrow.”
UNC forward Armando Bacot played early on as if he hadn’t quite woken up yet. Portland sent a double team almost every time he had a touch in the paint, and Bacot didn’t respond well.
He had a turnover trying to pass out of it. He got stripped of the ball. He also had one turnover where he dribbled off his foot.
“When I watched film from last year, they did a lot of doubling middle so I was trying to be quick and go baseline,” said Bacot, who finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds. “I didn’t realize until the third turnover, they were coming from the baseline. So that kind of threw me off. But other guys stepping up and scoring that’s what great about having a team with a lot of talented players.”
‘Be a dude’
Nance scored in double figures for the third straight game for Carolina. And in Nance fashion, in his postgame comments he said, “all the credit to my teammates” for finding him in his spots.
Davis instead credited Nance’s aggressiveness.
“One of the conversations — and I’ve had this with him a number of times — is he’s such a nice kid, he wants to fit in,” Davis said. “And I tried to tell him the way you fit in is, be a dude. Don’t worry about, ‘You’re the new guy on the block.’ We didn’t recruit you to be a role player, we recruited you to be what you did today.”
This story was originally published November 24, 2022 3:12 PM.
C.L. Brown covers the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer. Brown brings more than two decades of reporting experience including stints as the beat writer on Indiana University and the University of Louisville. After a long stay at the Louisville Courier-Journal, where he earned an APSE award, he’s had stops at ESPN.com, The Athletic and even tried his hand at running his own website, clbrownhoops.com.