Hard focus leads to easy UNC victory

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- As a combination of walk-ons and reserves finished off No. 4/6 North Carolina’s 97-48 blowout of Evansville on Tuesday night, the Tar Heels starters – sitting on the bench for the final eight-plus minutes -- alternately cheered on their teammates and laughed amongst themselves.

John [Henson] actually joked before the game, ‘It would be a nice feeling to be up 20 by halftime,’’’ senior forward Tyler Zeller said. “And it was nice to pull that off.’”

Indeed, the Tar Heels (who actually led by 30 at halftime) experienced an easy game for the first time in almost two weeks because they didn’t take it easy on themselves.

Still reeling from a one-point loss at top-ranked Kentucky – which capped off a tough eight-day stretch that also included a 10-point loss to UNLV in Las Vegas, and a tight three-point victory over Wisconsin at home – UNC (7-2) keyed on one thing: getting better.

Coach Roy Williams on Monday put the team than a harder-than-usual day-before-game practice, pitting the starters against the reserves in a scrimmage that left a lot of sweat on the floor, he said on his radio show.

"He wanted us to just go out there and focus on the mistakes we made in the Kentucky game and just learn from that," junior guard Dexter Strickland said.

Then before the game, one of the things Williams wrote on the wall board was “No Plays Off.”

So, knowing that minutes would be at a premium, the players aimed not to take any.

Ten minutes into the game, UNC had a double-digit lead, while the Purple Aces had more fouls (10) than points. By halftime, the Tar Heels had held Evansville to seven field goals, on 23.3 percent shooting, while making 60 percent of their shots.

By the end, Strickland had held the Aces’ leading scorer, Colt Ryan, to 1-for-11 shooting; forward Harrison Barnes had scored 17 points, and big men Henson (13 points, 12 rebounds) and Zeller (12, 10) had both picked up double-doubles (although Zeller came up one point short of 1,000 for his career).

And the only starter to play as many as 25 minutes? Point guard Kendall Marshall.

Which meant the reserves got some improvement time, too.

“We are more blessed with bigger, quicker players and we should win the game, but I thought our kids had great focus,’’ Williams said. “If we had that kind of focus for 40 minutes a couple of other times this year, it would have helped us out a great deal.”

Oh, the Tar Heels weren’t perfect. There was that silly foul by Marshall on a 3-pointer with 5 seconds left in the first half that had Williams still irritated, even after Marshall made up for it by beating the halftime buzzer with a 3-pointer of his own. There were a few miscommunications on defense, players said. And there was the continued struggle at the free throw line, as the Tar Heels made only 60.5 percent (26-for-43) of their foul shots.

Which is why, Zeller said, the way they won it was more important than by how much they won it.

And why it was easy to laugh and joke and cheer on the walk-ons and reserves at the end.

“ You’ve got to be able to play the game, and put the effort into it,’’ Zeller said. “If you come out the second half and just go through the motions and don’t play defense, you’re not really building any good habits – you’re not learning.

“… We were trying to get better, and make ourselves better, and the guys did a great job of working through that. We’re working for March, we’re not working for any team, particularly, right now.”

Robbi Pickeral can be reached at bylinerp@gmail.com. Twitter: @bylinerp.