By Adam Lucas
1. Carolina avoided a Thanksgiving disaster by outlasting Portland, 89-81. The Pilots used a versatile offense and assisted on 22 of 28 field goals to make the game much tighter than expected. Credit to RJ Daviswho didn’t have a great day overall but did lead the Heels with five assists, for drilling a clutch jumper with 24 seconds left to provide some breathing room and then drilling a couple of free throws with 18.4 seconds remaining.
2. Pete Nance has shown a tendency early in his Carolina career to be streaky from the perimeter. He was consistently good on Thursday, hitting five of his eight three-pointers, several at important second half junctures. He had a key 20 second half points when the Tar Heels desperately needed them.
3. The offense was largely a Nance and Caleb Love production. The Tar Heel duo combined for 51 of Carolina’s points. They were aided in those final 20 minutes by nine second half rebounds from Armando Bacot, with six of those coming on the offensive glass. Those boards were part of the Tar Heels’ first dominating effort on the glass this season, as they held a 37-22 advantage.
4. Thursday’s game had a very odd flow. Carolina raced to an 18-8 lead but then saw that bulge melt away when Hubert Davis began using his bench. And while it’s true the reserves weren’t productive in those first 20 minutes (a D’Marco Dunn three was the UNC bench’s only points in that period, as they trailed Portland 13-3 in that category), two other things are also true: the Tar Heels have to find reliable reserves, and they play five games away from home over a span of 11 days. The final bench point tally was a whopping 25-3 in favor of the Pilots. D’Marco Dunn, Puff Johnson and Tyler Nickel were the only reserves to play in the second half, amassing five minutes between them.
5. Love’s 23 points pushed him past the 1,000 point mark, giving him 1,020 for his career. That makes him the 80th Tar Heel to surpass 1,000, the most such scorers in college basketball. Louisville has the second-most 1,000-point club members, with 69. Love easily breezed past the mark in the first half, when his 16 points were largely the reason the Tar Heels had a 40-38 advantage at the break. The junior either scored or assisted on 10 of Carolina’s 16 first half field goals and a very engaged Love also had all three of Carolina’s first half steals.
6. Tyler Robertson had been one of the most important parts of Portland’s offense early in the season, leading the team in scoring at 17.5 points per game. Leaky Black drew the defensive assignment on him on Thanksgiving and was very effective in the first half, limiting Robertson to just one field goal attempt. The shooter was marginally better in the second half, hitting four of his 11 shots. Most importantly, Carolina kept him off the free throw line, where he attempted 24 tries in a game against Portland State earlier this season.
7. Carolina has been a good free throw shooting team over the last season plus, but the charity stripe was a problem on Thursday. The Tar Heels missed five free throws in a row in a key stretch late in the second half, which helped keep the Pilots close. Armando Bacot finally broke the streak by sinking the second of two tries coming out of a timeout. Carolina finished a meager 13-22 from the line (59.1%).
8. Bacot’s 11-point, 13-rebound double-double tied Antawn Jamison with 51 in his Carolina career, the second-most by a Tar Heel ever. Billy Cunningham leads in that category with 60.
9. The 10 am local tip time necessitated a few tweaks to the usual Tar Heel basketball pregame routine. The program typically has a pregame meal four hours before tipoff, but a 6 am breakfast didn’t seem very appealing for college students, so it was adjusted to 7 am Remember that Carolina’s game against Baylor last year in the NCAA Tournament started at 11 am , so the Heels have some recent history with earlier starts. This one, however, was the earliest start anyone in program history could remember.
10. As you would expect, there were plenty of Nike-related festivities surrounding the event. All the teams attended a function on Wednesday night on the Nike campus that included a behind the scenes campus tour, comments from some key basketball figures that included Roy Williams.
11. Williams was, of course, also in attendance at the Moda Center on Thursday. That led to a steady procession of picture-seekers in the half-hour before the game. The life of a semi-public figure is never normal; imagine posing for dozens of selfies with strangers before 10 am on Thanksgiving.
12. Carolina now awaits the winner of Villanova-Iowa State to find out who they will play tomorrow at 2:30 pm local time (5:30 pm Eastern). Either way, the last meeting will not have been a pleasant one. Carolina’s last meeting with Iowa State was a last-second 85-83 loss in the NCAA Tournament in 2013. The last matchup with Villanova was in the 2016 NCAA championship game, and we aren’t going to talk about that.
13. That 5:30 pm Eastern start time sets up a busy day for Carolina athletics. Tar Heel football, of course, hosts NC State at 3:30 pm Eastern, a game that will be carried on all the usual Tar Heel Sports Network outlets. The THSN broadcast of the basketball game will be available through the Varsity app, the GoHeels website and app, and on 102.5 FM locally.