North Carolina has crisscrossed the country twice and played on the road against the nation’s top-ranked team. The fourth-ranked Tar Heels are hoping a long stretch of home games will be a big help in fixing some of their early-season problems.
Harrison Barnes scored 17 points to help North Carolina beat Evansville 97-48 on Tuesday night, the first of nine straight home games that will keep the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill until opening Atlantic Coast Conference play in January.
Reggie Bullock added 15 points off the bench for the Tar Heels (7-2), who had an easy time bouncing back from their loss at top-ranked Kentucky. North Carolina ran off 12 straight points midway through the first half to blow the game open, then pushed a 30-point halftime lead to as many as 51 points in the second half.
”We are experienced but we are also still fairly young, too,” coach Roy Williams said. ”It’s a pretty good blend. We talked about we have a stretch here where we play a lot of games at home. This is one of them. We’ve got to try to get better. … Let’s use this to help our team.”
The Tar Heels repeatedly limited the cold-shooting Purple Aces (3-4) to one shot by grabbing the defensive rebound – North Carolina more than doubled them on the glass – and sprinting up the court. Evansville shot 26 percent for the game, including 6 for 27 from 3-point range.
Williams said he thought his players were focused after Saturday’s 73-72 loss to the Wildcats, who replaced UNC at No. 1 after the Tar Heels’ loss to UNLV in the Las Vegas Invitational. North Carolina had a shot blocked on its final possession in the final seconds of that game.
”He wanted us to just go out there and focus on the mistakes we made in the Kentucky game and just learn from that,” junior Dexter Strickland said.
North Carolina shot 60 percent in the first half, built a double-digit lead just 5 minutes in and ran off four runs of at least seven unanswered points in the opening half. The Tar Heels led 52-22 at the break on Kendall Marshall’s clock-beating 3-pointer, then ran off the first 10 points of the second half to push the margin to 40 points with about 16 minutes left.
”They took us out of everything,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. ”We had a hard time just getting ball reversals. They beat us to screens, and we didn’t screen very well. They played with a lot of intensity. We just got completely out of kilter, out of rhythm, out of everything, even when we got open looks. All the credit goes to them.”
Denver Holmes scored 14 points and hit four 3-pointers as the only player to reach double figures for Evansville. The rest of the team shot 12 for 57 (21 percent) from the field and went just 2 for 19 from behind the arc.
Top scorer Colt Ryan, who came in averaging about 20 points, finished with nine on 1-for-11 shooting.
”They’re a really long team and we’re undersized,” Holmes said. ”We know that. We just didn’t have the fight in us that we needed to get it done tonight.”
It was only North Carolina’s fourth home game of the season, a welcome break for a team that racked up more than 10,000 travel miles in the first month.
The Tar Heels opened in California with Michigan State in the Carrier Classic, then flew across the country two weeks later for a pair of games in the Las Vegas Invitational. Along with that loss at Kentucky, the Tar Heels have had trouble defending dribble penetration, stopping 3-point shooting and hitting their own outside shots.
They’ll have plenty of time to work on things since they don’t go on the road again until traveling to Florida State on Jan. 14.
”The thing I was most worried about coming into this game was how we were going to start,” Marshall said. ”I think it was big for us to come out with intensity. I think we took a step forward maturing-wise of not playing to the level of our competition.”
North Carolina had five players in double figures, with John Henson adding 13 points and 12 rebounds. Tyler Zeller finished with 12, falling a point shy of reaching 1,000 for his career.
Freshman guard P.J. Hairston suffered an apparent right ankle injury midway through the second half for UNC, adding to his sprained left wrist suffered last week against Wisconsin.