CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Players for No. 1 North Carolina provided reminders that this was just the beginning Monday night.
Caleb Love and RJ Davis scored 17 points apiece and the Tar Heels started a season of grand expectations by pulling away from UNC Wilmington with a 69-56 victory Monday night.
“I think we all came out a little rusty,” senior forward Armando Bacot said. “It’s not easy winning games. I’m glad it’s the first game and not later on in the season.”
Bacot added 16 points and nine rebounds for the Tar Heels, who were perhaps most impressive at the defensive end. UNCW shot just 29.8 % from the field.
The Tar Heels, who were the NCAA Tournament runner-up in April, began the new season with the top ranking for the first time in seven years. It’s a record 10th time that North Carolina has been ranked No. 1 to start a season – one more than rival Duke.
“We didn’t hit our stride last year til January, February,” forward Leaky Black said. “It’s a win. It’s Day 1, literally. I’m excited for the potential that we have. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
Trazarien White scored 19 points for UNCW, which faced a top-ranked team for the first time in program history. Skykeim Phillips had 11 points and Donovan Newby added 10. The Seahawks went 4-for-16 on 3-pointers.
“For us to stick to the process is important,” UNCW coach Takayo Siddle said. “I think that’s something to build on.”
After an incredible NCAA tournament run for the Tar Heels last spring, second-year coach Hubert Davis knows it will take time to return to that level.
“It gives us a really good baseline on what we need to work on and improve at,” Coach Davis said. “My hope is that it was first-game anxiousness and nervousness.”
North Carolina led 32-21 at halftime behind Davis’ 11 points, but it wasn’t easy.
“We were rushing and taking bad shots,” Bacot said. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s the first game.”
It was tied 17-17 with six minutes to go in the first half before a 12-2 run for the Tar Heels, who missed 10 of their first 14 shots prior to that spurt.
The Tar Heels have won their first game of a season for 18 years in a row. North Carolina has won 21 consecutive Smith Center openers.
North Carolina reserves managed only six points. UNCW held a 37-32 rebounding edge.
“They held me to nine rebounds,” said Bacot, a preseason All-American. “I would say that’s probably a bad game for me.”
North Carolina was credited with four assists, matching its lowest total since a double-overtime loss to Texas A&M in the 1980 NCAA Tournament.
“One of the things that we pride ourselves on is passing up good shots to get great shots,” Coach Davis said. “That just wasn’t there.”
That was all part of an awkward offense.
“At times, we couldn’t even catch the basketball,” Coach Davis said. “I know we have a veteran group, but it was a first game.”
On the flip side, UNCW’s three assists were the fewest for a North Carolina opponent since December 1975 vs. Kentucky.
UNCW: The Seahawks were competitive for most of the game and provided a good deal of physicality in the game. They pulled in 16 offensive rebounds, though they had lots of opportunities for those considering their horrid shooting touch. It was probably a good barometer for the Seahawks while they fell to 0-6 all-time vs. North Carolina.
“We emphasize rebounding,” Siddle said. “That’s part of who we are with offensive rebounding. I wish we could have made a few more shots.”
North Carolina: This wasn’t the smoothest performance for the Tar Heels, but they’ll have time to address glitches as they’ll play their first four games at home. With four starters returning from last season’s team, there’s plenty of experience in the lineup. Northwestern transfer Pete Nance completed the starting five. This was the 47th straight win against in-state, non-conference competition for the Tar Heels.
UNCW: Friday at home vs. Allen
North Carolina: Friday at home vs. College of Charleston