Sunday presented the Tar Heels with their toughest test of the season young as the undefeated James Madison Dukes rolled into the Smith Center. After some pointed comments about the team’s effort and overall play from head coach Hubert Davis after the win on Tuesday night, the team pieced together their most complete effort of the season to score an 80-64 victory as they prepare to pack up and head for the West Coast for the weekend.
One of the common themes of the first three games of the season for this group had been slow starts on at least one end of the floor, but that was not the case in this one. The team scored the most first half points of the season (45) and had their largest halftime lead (19) behind a strong half across the board. The Tar Heels shot 51.7% from the field overall and knocked down seven threes, easily the most in a half so far this season. R.J. Davis carried the way offensively, scoring a team-high 12 in the half, while Armando Bacot returned to form registering his first double-double of the season with 11 points and 11 rebounds before halftime. They also held a James Madison offense that entered the game shooting 58.6% overall and 54.1% from the outside, both the second best marks in all of Division 1, to just 29.4% from the field in the half and a season-low 26 points in the half.
The Dukes responded after the half, though, using a 12-2 run to cut the lead back to single digits, setting the stage for a bit of a back-and-forth second half. Despite the back-and-forth nature, the Tar Heels never let the lead get smaller than eight and executed when they needed to make the win a comfortable one. The focus was clearly to get to the basket after the hot start from behind the ark slowed down in the second half, as they scored 30 of their 35 points in the half in the paint or at the free throw line. The shot better overall from the field in the second half, but they were held to just 2-12 from beyond the arc after scoring 15 of their 26 first points on threes. The Dukes, who entered the day averaging 105.2 points per game, record their fewest points of the season, shot their lowest percentages of the season overall and from deep and their fewest rebounds of the season (34).
The Tar Heels got dominant outings from their stars led by Davis and Bacot, who were simply outstanding. Davis dropped in a team-high 21 points on 7-16 from the field while dishing out a team-high five assists. Bacot, who entered the game struggling on the glass, set a new career high with 23 boards, including eight on the offensive end, and poured in 19 points on 5-11 shooting. Leaky Black also had a nice day for himself, ripping down twelve rebounds of his own and the team got some nice contributions from the bench led by the return of Puff Johnson. As for James Madison, Takal Molson had 19 to lead the way, but the Tar Heels held leading scorer Vado Morse to just 3-17 from the field and did not allow Terrance Edwards, the team’s second-leading scorer to even get on the board, something that was aided by his foul trouble.
Hubert Davis was much happier in his postgame sit down with Jones Angell than he was on Tuesday night. He said he was proud of his team in each of the first three games, but he was especially proud today of how well this team played defensively against a James Madison team that was playing some of the best ball of anyone in the country coming in. He was also very pleased with what he saw in the first half from this offensively when it came to ball movement and movement without the basketball, something that he was very critical of the others. “I told the coaches towards the end of the ‘we took a step forward today’. We couldn’t agree more.
Rebounding: The early season struggles on the glass was one of the more shocking things that we have seen with Tar Heel basketball recently, but they looked more like what we are used to seeing on Sunday. The team ripped down a season-high 50 rebounds in this one and was +16 on the glass, easily their most significant rebound margin so far. Bacot and Black combined for 35 rebounds, one more than the entire James Madison team had. They also pulled eleven offensive rebounds, which they turned into twelve second chance points. This is what we expected from this team and hopefully this was what they need to get back to being a dominant rebounding force.
Bacot Looks the Part: It was no secret that it had been a slow start for the national player of the year candidate, but Sunday he looked like the player that we saw late last year. His 23 rebounds were a career-high and his eight offensive boards were the same amount that he had in the first three games of the season combined. He looked much more under control all around today, especially on the offensive end where he established great position all afternoon.
Leaky Black Steps Up: Bacot wasn’t the only player who had a career best performance on the glass in this one. Black was the only player besides Bacot that finished with more than five rebounds as he ripped down a career-high 12 rebounds, including ten defensive boards.
Puff Johnson Returns: The Tar Heels' top bench player from last season made his return to the floor on Sunday afternoon after missing the first three games of the season with an injury. He played the most minutes off the bench and had six of the team’s 15 bench points on 2-3 from shooting. Johnson being out there gave this bench some much needed help in the frontcourt and the difference showed on the court. Now the hope is that he can healthy moving forward and firmly cement himself in that role as the first man off the bench.
Pace Picks Up: We have not seen this team be able to run for the majority of the season, but the Tar Heels were finally able to get out and run at a consistent rate, especially in the first half. The team had fourteen fast break points, which was helped by just how well this team rebounded on the defensive end of the floor all day long.