UNC beats Northern Kentucky in lackluster performance

Roy Williams benched four of his starters to begin the second half in an attempt to jumpstart the team's effort.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — No. 19 North Carolina (9-3) beat Northern Kentucky, 75-60, on Friday night, but as usual with the seesawing Tar Heels, nothing came easily. 

It was enough to make their head coach Roy Williams flat-out angry. 

He’s been trending that way for the last few weeks anyway, but it all kind of came to a head after a first-half effort from the lethargic Tar Heels that saw them up just five points on a Northern Kentucky team that was 4-7 coming into the game. 

1. A big part of UNC’s issues — beating the good teams, losing to the bad ones — has been effort. But not in the way that one would think. 

The word "effort" when it comes to basketball usually evokes images of players diving for loose balls. But when Williams was upset about his team’s effort in the first half — and, let’s face it, in about half of UNC’s games so far this season — it wasn’t about that. Not really, anyway. 

"Effort gets thrown around a lot in sports, but at the end of the day, it’s not just diving for the ball. It’s being tough enough to go box out your man. It’s denying the pass when you’re tired. It’s getting up and getting over a ball screen instead of taking the easy route and going under. Those things fall under the effort category," sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. 

"You might think you can just jump up and get the ball and then you get dunked on on a tip dunk like we saw in the first half. That’s what he means with effort. It’s not always they dove for the ball and we didn’t, because those plays only happen once or twice a game. He’s talking about being tough enough to play through fatigue, get up into your man, pressure — all the little things that we watch when we grade tape but don’t always get noticed by the casual observer."

Paige understands those things, and that’s probably why when Williams started out the second half with a reshuffled lineup, he was the only starter still on the court. He was joined by seldom-used reserves: junior Luke Davis, freshman Isaiah Hicks, and juniors Jackson Simmons and Desmond Hubert. 

None of those four average more than 9.8 minutes a game (Davis) and they have 54 points combined between them all season. 

But putting that lineup in was basically the only alternative Williams would accept. 

"My staff did a great job because what I wanted to do was stay out at halftime and run sprints the entire freaking half. They thought it was not the right thing to do, but God, I wanted to do that so badly," Williams said. "I will never ask them again because I’m going to do that one of these days. I know by God we’ll make SportsCenter then."

Williams told his team at halftime that’s what he wanted to do. And so they all started preparing themselves to go back out on the court and run sprints. 

After a 5:00 a.m. practice the morning after losing to Texas a week ago, nothing seems crazy to them anymore. They didn’t think it was a stunt at all. 

"Oh, I was about ready to prepare myself to go back out there," sophomore forward Brice Johnson said. "I knew (Williams) would’ve did it for real. I know him. He would’ve probably did it for real. 

"We would’ve been out there running and y’all would’ve been looking at us like, ‘What are they doing?’ But I was mentally repairing myself, okay, let’s get back out there and run."

Redshirt senior Leslie McDonald was surprised only that Williams didn’t get out on the court at some point during the game to demonstrate proper defensive technique to his team.  

"I think Coach, by showing the 5 am practice and showing the team that he wanted to run us at halftime, it just shows how much passion he has for the game," McDonald said. "He’s out there coaching, but I honestly believe that if Coach could’ve put on a jersey, he would’ve put on a jersey and came out and played and showed us how to play defense. That’s just him being passionate and you’ve got to respect that."

Williams was frustrated for a lot of reasons. The Tar Heels held multiple double-digit leads for much of the half until Northern Kentucky outscored them 20-11 over the final 9:26.  They scored 12 of their 28 points in the paint in that span alone, despite the Tar Heels having a size advantage. 

Meanwhile, Williams watched his team lose defensive assignments, fail to get to the glass effectively (save Paige, who had a career-high nine rebounds and led the team with five at half) and settle for jump shots. 

"We had a tremendous size advantage and one of our goals was to attack the basket. We didn’t get a single low-post up or taking the ball to the basket the entire first half, so I was pretty frustrated at that," Williams said. "I put in those five guys to start the second half, and I thought they gave us a tremendous lift defensively. They did some really good things for us. That sort of turned it around."

None of them found out they were going in until the warmups before the second half began. None of them knew who’d they be playing with. Simmons said that the group has been playing together in practice quite a bit and had nice chemistry already. 

And the proverbial B Team, as it were, rewarded Williams with two blocks and a steal in that span, outscoring Northern Kentucky 5-0 and igniting the crowd with a crisp 5-0 run that was capped off with a fastbreak dunk by Hicks. Northern Kentucky shot 0-of-5 from the floor and turned it over once against that unit. 

"It was a group that’s had some good chemistry in practice, and it showed. We took a lot of pride when we came out of shutting (Northern Kentucky) down," Simmons said. "That group didn’t let anybody score for their team and that was a big-time achievement."

For Williams, it isn’t just diving after loose balls or getting blocks and steals or offensive rebounds. It’s getting all of those things within the flow of the UNC offense, and not losing your man on defense. 

At times, UNC players were going for steals and blocks and trying to make the spectacular play — again, trying — but it left a Northern Kentucky player wide open for an outback or a drive to the basket. So the mental part of effort is as important to this team as the physical part is.

"I’d say that might have been the biggest thing, is I thought it might mean more to those five that I put in there than I thought it meant by the actions of those first five that I had in there. Because you’ve got to care," Williams said. "If you really care, if you really want to be a big-time team, you don’t make those same mistakes now that we were making September 27. So I’d say it’s probably just as much, I wanted guys in there that would compete and make me feel like they cared more. 

"I should coach execution, but you’ve heard me say before, I shouldn’t have to coach effort and I shouldn’t have to coach concentration either."

2. So where do the Tar Heels go from here? The best answer is probably who knows? 

Here it is, 12 games into the season and Williams is still having to coach concentration and sometimes even effort. 

But he understands that this is a young team, and he understands what this team is capable of doing. It has shown that much with three wins over top-11 teams. But it has shown what its ceiling is with losses to Belmont, UAB and Texas, two of those three at home. 

Against Northern Kentucky, six of the nine players who saw double-digit minutes were freshmen or sophomores. So to a degree, he knows inconsistency comes with the territory.

Or, at least, he hopes that’s what it is.

"I hope it is, because maturity means that we can get there. Lack of maturity now means that we can get there eventually, so I hope that’s what it is," Williams said. "We are an extremely young club, but also we’ve played 12 games. We’ve got to be able to bring it."

Williams blamed himself a bit for bringing the team back a little later after the Christmas holidays, and the team has had just one practice since returning to campus. But his players blamed themselves plenty. 

They understand that they’ve got just one non-conference game left (against UNC-Wilmington on Tuesday) before ACC play begins. They know that they can’t keep playing like this.  

"We’ve got to turn it up because playing in the ACC, it’s not going to be like these games now. We’ve had some great games against the top teams. Playing against teams like Northern Kentucky, we haven’t been doing as well," Johnson said. 

"We need to just go out there and play like we play in those big-time games, like in front of all those big crowds when the lights come on.  At the end of the day, the lights are going to come on and you still have to go out there and play. No matter who’s in front of you, you just have to go out there and play the way that Coach wants us to play and we can just win the game like that."

Easier said than done with this group, though? 

When asked that, Johnson shrugged. 

"We’ve just got to do it," Johnson said. "We can say it all we want, but we have to go out there and do it ourselves."

Paige has been one of the more consistent Tar Heels so far, and it’s clear even he is starting to get frustrated.

He knows more than most what it’s like to be thrown into the fire as a freshman, and he knows that this group has a lot of growing left to do this season. 

But he also understands that the core of this team is made up of guys who had plenty of experience a year ago, and collectively it needs to step up.

"I’m guessing (immaturity) has something to do with it, but I’ve never been a part of a team that’s as up and down as we are. It’s crazy," Paige said, shaking his head. "I don’t really have an answer for why — we just know that we have to address it. 

"The only way I can think to address that is to crank up the effort on every possession and not take any possessions off, because that usually takes care of a lot of things. Even if we turn the ball over a couple of times or turn the ball over on offense, our effort and intensity should dictate the way we play in games like this."

It’s now or never, though, for this group. The first ACC game is going to be at Wake Forest, a team that has played pretty well in the early going, and it will be far from easy. There aren’t really many easy games left, and UNC is going to have to be more consistent to be the kind of team it has shown it’s can be.

3. Freshman Isaiah Hicks had a nice game. 

Hicks has been really the only UNC freshman who hasn’t had to play a lot, and the only one without a signature moment to date. His teammates, though, insist that he’s on the cusp of one.

"He’s growing tremendously. He’s not at his natural position, so it’s really hard for him," Johnson said. "He’s still learning the three-spot and not playing at his natural position at the four. He’s doing a great job of what he’s doing so far, what Coach is telling him to do and just listening to everybody that’s trying to help him out at the same time."

With the injury to sophomore center Joel James, Hicks is going to have to play more. He’s had to learn to play the three position, as it’s a place where UNC lacks depth, and he’s naturally more of a four-man, as Johnson said.

In nearly eight minutes a game entering the Northern Kentucky game, Hicks had a total of 16 points in 12 games on 6-of-13 shooting to go with 13 rebounds and six blocks. 

But in 12 minutes as part of that second-half starting unit, Hicks made his time on the court count. 

Assistant coach C.B. McGrath approached him during second-half warmups and told him he was going to start the second half. Was he surprised? You bet. But he didn’t have much time to be nervous.

"I was just like, whatever they need me to do, I’m going to just do it," Hicks said. "They’re starting me or a reason and so I’ve just got to do whatever they ask."

His stats — four points, three rebounds, one assist, no turnovers and three blocks — don’t even tell the full story. He was active, confident and aggressive on both ends of the court. 

"It’s just a great confidence-booster. It shows me I can play," Hicks said. "I can play defense and all that stuff, just doing what Coach says."

"I need to give him some more time and I want to give him some more time," Williams said of Hicks. "He’s just like a little colt running around out there, but he’s going to be a really, really good player."