CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Nate Britt matched his career high with 17 points and No. 1 North Carolina gradually pulled away in the second half to beat Fairfield 92-65 on Sunday.
Joel Berry II added 15 points for the Tar Heels (2-0), who led all the way to win their 14th consecutive home opener. But UNC followed its 24-point win over Temple in Friday’s opener with an unimpressive showing full of missed free throws and leaky defense.
The Tar Heels struggled to put away a team that went 7-24 last season, a performance that had Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams burn a first-half timeout and let his team have it during an animated stoppage.
UNC led 40-32 at halftime and didn’t put the game away until the final 10 minutes against the Stags (0-2), who hit 10 3-pointers that kept them hanging around longer than expected.
The Tar Heels are playing without preseason Atlantic Coast Conference co-player of the year Marcus Paige for the first few weeks of the season due to a broken right hand, so the play of Britt and Berry along the perimeter in Paige’s absence at least offered some positives for the Tar Heels.
Britt, a junior, finished 6 for 9 from the field and tied his career high by making 4 of 6 3-point attempts, while Berry added three 3s while taking the bulk of the point guard duties with Paige out.
Brice Johnson scored 16 points as UNC had five players in double figures and shot 50 percent, though the Tar Heels made just 18 of 32 foul shots.
Marcus Gilbert scored 25 points to lead Fairfield before fouling out in the final minutes.
The game was part of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Classic, though it wasn’t part of the event’s elimination rounds.
Fairfield: The Stags shot 35 percent for the game. … Fairfield committed 19 turnovers, helping the Tar Heels to a 22-0 edge in points off turnovers. … Freshman Jonathan Kasibabu had 10 rebounds.
UNC: Sophomore Theo Pinson finished with 11 points, five rebounds and eight assists in his second straight start. … Fellow sophomore Justin Jackson had 11 points. … Kennedy Meeks had 12 rebounds, while Johnson grabbed 11. … UNC shot 55 percent in the second half.
LOS ANGELES — There’s no denying the fact that the 2014-15 season was a difficult one for North Carolina head coach Roy Williams. There was the passing of his friend and mentor Dean Smith, and there was also the NCAA investigation that’s still ongoing. Add in the fact that his team didn’t truly hit its stride until March, and Williams certainly had his hands full throughout the 2014-15 campaign.
North Carolina’s season came to an end Thursday night in the Sweet 16, as they fell 79-72 to West regional champion No. 1 Wisconsin, but the finish to the season is something that Williams and his players can build on this offseason. The Tar Heels hung with the Badgers throughout, but a couple key lapses on the defensive end proved costly down the stretch. Wisconsin rebounded nearly 39 percent of its misses Thursday night, and while the Badgers scored just ten second-chance points having to defend Bo Ryan’s team for longer stretches than one would want can add up over the course of a game.
North Carolina played arguably its best basketball of the season in March, winning three games in Greensboro before falling in the ACC tournament final to Notre Dame and then beating Harvard and Arkansas to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2012. Outside of center Desmond Hubert, who missed the final 16 games due to a torn ACL, everyone should be back next season led by guard Marcus Paige, wing Justin Jackson and big men Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks.
With that being the case the Tar Heels will be one of the early favorites in the ACC. And as we’ve seen, being a favorite in the ACC means that you’re a national title contender as well.
“If you think about it, you take away six minutes in the Notre Dame game and we would have had a great run here in the end, but you can’t take away the six minutes,” Williams said following Thursday’s defeat. “You take away the 7- or 9-0 stretch (in the second half), and we had a great run today.
“I want them to use this as fuel. The little lapses that Justin mentioned and that I mentioned to a failed boxout here or missed free throw there were important,” Williams continued. “And if we can take care of those little lapses, then we’ve got a chance to be one of those teams that has a chance to talk about winning the whole thing.”
The biggest development for North Carolina was the growth displayed by some of their supplementary options, with Johnson and Meeks being two of those players. While Meeks was hobbled by a sprained knee suffered against Arkansas Johnson played well against Wisconsin, accounting for 15 points and four rebounds despite playing just 22 minutes due to foul trouble. Both players made noticeable strides this season, with Johnson (13.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg) raising his scoring and rebounding averages by nearly three points and two rebounds per game and Meeks (11.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg) improving his scoring by nearly four points per contest while also being able to play more minutes.
Receiving increased offense from those two, not to mention the freshman Jackson (10.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.3 apg), ensured that North Carolina would have a fighting chance against quality competition on nights in which Paige wasn’t at his best offensively. Against Wisconsin the junior guard scored six of his 12 points in the final two minutes, with the shots keeping the Heels within striking distance, but it was the play of players such as Johnson and Jackson (15 points) that kept North Carolina afloat.
That should only help the program moving forward, as a more potent rotation means that Paige won’t be required to save the day as often as he has in the past. What will also help North Carolina is the bond they managed to create in the midst of what was a tough season for reasons both on and off the court.
“It was a tough year for us as a program and for coach especially with everything that happened,” Paige said. “But we have a great group of kids that enjoy being around each other more so than my freshman year, more so than last year. And we’re going to have a lot of the same kids next year.
“It hurts for the seniors because they don’t get another opportunity at this, and in college it goes so fast in those four years. You only get four cracks at it,” Paige continued. “Obviously it hurts right now because we’re such a close group of guys. But for the guys that do get to come back next year, we’re going to try to come together even more as a team and try to execute better and make something special out of it.”
North Carolina had to navigate a lot this season, including multiple injuries and an NCAA inquiry that has yet to be completed, but by the end still managed to finish a couple plays away from the Elite Eight. And the status of that NCAA inquiry will have an impact on what the Tar Heels are able to do next season.
But even with that cloud hovering over the program, with no one having much of an idea as to what will happen, the players can’t control that. What they can control is how they prepare for 2015-16, a year in which much will be expected of them. The depth and talent are there for North Carolina to put together a special season. What the Tar Heels do this offseason will determine whether or not that turns out to be the case.
Status of North Carolina forward remains uncertain ahead of Thursday’s game against No. 1 Wisconsin
LOS ANGELES — During No. 4 North Carolina’s Round of 32 win over No. 5 Arkansas Saturday evening, sophomore power forward Kennedy Meeks went down with what was declared a sprained left knee as a result of a player falling into the side of his leg. Meeks did not return to the game, and as recently as Tuesday head coach Roy Williams didn’t sound optimistic that the 6-foot-9 sophomore would be available Thursday night against No. 1 Wisconsin.
Wednesday afternoon Williams spoke about Meeks’ status for the game, noting that during the team’s actual practice in the morning Meeks participated in some contact drills for the first time since suffering the injury. As for whether or not Meeks would be able to play, Williams remains unsure.
“We don’t know anything about Kennedy,” Williams said in his opening statement to the media. “This morning he did some contact on a limited basis for the first time.”
Meeks did participate in the team’s light workout at Staples Center, wearing a protective brace on his left knee. Following that session began an important period for Meeks in regards to whether or not he’d be able to take the floor against the West region’s top seed.
“The big thing now is we’ll have to wait to see if there’s any more swelling or any pain tonight for what little he did this morning,” Williams added. “And probably it won’t be — well, if there is swelling or pain tonight, we won’t play him. If there’s not, then we’ll probably make the decision during warm-ups tomorrow.”
If Meeks were unable to go it would be the second game he’s missed this season, and the likely replacement would be either Joel James or Isaiah Hicks. Both players played 15 minutes in the Tar Heels’ win over Boston College earlier this month, with James (six points, three rebounds) getting the start and Hicks adding seven points and five rebounds off the bench.
Obviously, there’s no comparison between the Eagles and Wisconsin when assessing what the Tar Heels may do should Meeks be unavailable. Given the matchups with Wisconsin, Hicks provides North Carolina with some mobility in the front court that James doesn’t alongside starter Brice Johnson.