New version of halftime optimism: Things can’t get any worse.
North Carolina overwhelmed the highly regarded Tennessee defense with 61 first-half points and looked as if it might set a world record.
The Volunteers fought back with the proverbial heart of lions. The Tar Heels seemed surprised. They eventually missed a few three-pointers and even a free throw or two. The Chapel Hill scene switched from a 76-52 rout to an exciting six-point basketball game.
Dalton Knecht led the charge in the inaugural ACC/SEC Challenge. He scored 37 before rolling an ankle and being helped from the floor with 1:31 remaining. Most of the drama went with him.
North Carolina won, 100-92.
The Vols opened with a comprehensive help plan to contain the Tar Heels’ 6-11 all-American, Armando Bacot. It was a moderate success if you don’t count foul troubles. Perimeter defense was an alarming failure. R.J. Davis and Harrison Ingram launched too many open threes.
Santiago Vescovi, Jonas Aidoo and Zakai Zeigler were the first to lose minutes because of fouls. Vescovi was a near-total loss. He failed to score.
Carolina shot 68 percent (19-of-33) from the floor in the first half, hit seven threes and was 16-of-16 at the free throw line. Tennessee lost the hustle competition. It seemed low on energy. The Tar Heels appeared much quicker – and smarter.
Knecht and Josiah-Jordan James prevented the romp from becoming a stampede. North Carolina led, 61-39, at intermission.
The second half was not an immediate reversal but the Vols chipped away at the deficit. North Carolina cooperated. Bacot was whistled for second and third fouls. Shooters went into a decline. They finished with only 33 of 38 free throws. From the floor, they dropped off to 32 percent.
The Tar Heels didn’t have anybody who could handle Knecht. He hit 13 of 17 (four of eight threes). JJJ made eight of 11 goals, totaled 20 points and had five rebounds and two blocked shots.
Zeigler contributed seven assists. Jordan Gainey was again off-target (five of 15). Tennessee connected on 13 of 16 free throws. Bacot scored 22 and gathered 11 rebounds.
Coach Rick Barnes was not a happy camper.
“I told our team at halftime, it’s the worst basketball half from a team I’ve ever coached. Never seen a team that has the ability that we have that can be that bad in the first half.”
Barnes said he knew North Carolina would be aggressive, would play really hard.
“I thought we were stagnant. I thought we had guys, and mostly the older guys, getting beat off the bounce. Didn’t follow our scouting report, how we wanted to play, giving up the shots we gave up in the first half.
“It was pretty tough, man. I’m sitting there watching and wondering what are we doing? I must have said that 20 times – ‘what are we doing?’
“It was so uncharacteristic … just the way we did it … our breakdowns. What bothers me more than anything is getting beat off the dribble the way we were in the first half … Oh, it was tough, tough to watch. It really was … it was awful.
“We weren’t disciplined. We were leaving guys that we shouldn’t leave. To be honest, I was baffled.”
Halftime was not hopeless.
“I told the guys, I said we’ll have a chance to win this game if we’ll just get back to being who we’re supposed to be.”
The coach was different when he got to the second half. He said he was proud of the guys who fought back. He mentioned Ziggy. He said Cade Phillips gave the team some great minutes.
“Really proud of Josiah (Jordan James). He was the one guy from start to finish that I thought was ready to play. He acted like he’d been in games like this.
“And Jonas (Aidoo), we’re going to establish Jonas. I truly think Jonas is going to play his way to being one of the best post guys in the country.”
Barnes did not sound optimistic about Knecht’s ankle injury.
“He stepped on somebody’s foot … he’s the kind of guy that, he bounces back. And for him not to get up…”
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org.