Okpala, Stanford beat UNC Wilmington 72-59 in long trip east
WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — Even Stanford coach Jerod Haase knows that the Cardinal’s early season schedule might be a bit much.
Sophomore KZ Okpala had 23 points and Stanford scored 17 unanswered first-half points to take control and beat UNC Wilmington 72-59 on Friday night, the first of two games in North Carolina amid a November full of cross-country flights.
Cormac Ryan added 14 for the Cardinal (2-0), who traveled about 2,500 miles to become the first power-conference team to visit the Seahawks in nearly a decade. After traveling to No. 8 North Carolina to return a game after the Tar Heels visited them last year, the Cardinal will come home for one game, then head back east for the three-games-in-three-days Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas during the Thanksgiving holiday.
“It’s all about frequent-flier miles,” Haase quipped to The Associated Press afterward.
Stanford trailed by eight midway through the first half but held the Seahawks (0-2) without a basket for the final 7½ minutes before halftime to take a 39-25 lead at the break. Stanford quickly pushed that margin to 18, and UNCW got no closer than eight again.
Devontae Cacok and Jeantal Cylla each scored 14 for the Seahawks (0-2), who were hosting a power-conference opponent for the first time since losing to Wake Forest from the Atlantic Coast Conference in December 2009. There was a connection that helped get this one scheduled: the teams are coached by former Kansas teammates and North Carolina assistant coaches under Roy Williams in Haase and UNCW’s C.B. McGrath.
UNCW, from the Colonial Athletic Association, is slated to return the visit next season.
“I’m appreciative of him coming on the road,” McGrath said. “Not too many coaches at a (power-conference) school would do that. I really appreciate him bringing his team, letting the fans see what Stanford looks like, a Pac-12 school.”
Stanford: The November miles will add up quickly. Haase will certainly learn a bit about his team’s maturity in handling this opening stretch, as well as a nonconference schedule that includes a visit to top-ranked Kansas on Dec. 1.
“I want to be part of the Atlantis tournament because it’s a special deal,” Haase said. “I want to go back and play at Kansas because it’s a special deal. Now, as we’ve done that, we’ve created a schedule that’s pretty insane — and probably a little more aggressive than I would like to, more travel that I would like.
“But it’s also part of the process right now. The guys have to learn how to play on the road.”
UNCW: Things haven’t been easy for the Seahawks in recent months. They didn’t have a typical preseason after having to relocate early practices to Chapel Hill with the campus closed in the wake of damage and flooding to the region from Hurricane Florence in September, including damage to some parts of Trask Coliseum and other campus buildings. They’ve now started with two turnover-filled games, first with 18 turnovers that led to 25 points in Tuesday’s overtime loss at Campbell.
They struggled to take care of the basketball against Stanford’s length, finishing with 20 turnovers that Stanford converted into 26 points.
“It all comes down to having focus,” Cacok said. “We’ve got to take care of the ball. When we have turnovers, we don’t get shots up. When we don’t get shots up, we don’t score the ball.”
It was the second straight big game for the 6-foot-9 Okpala, who had a career-best 29 points to go with 10 rebounds and five assists in the season-opening win against Seattle. He was also aggressive, getting to the foul line 11 times.
“I’m just playing hard, just playing within myself,” he said, “just executing what we’re supposed to do.”
Stanford had 15 steals, its best total in any game since swiping 15 against Oregon State in January 2006.
Stanford: The Cardinal will practice in Wilmington on Saturday, then travel to eighth-ranked UNC for Monday’s game.
UNCW: McGrath gets another Tar Heels reunion Tuesday with a visit from UNC Greensboro and Spartans coach Wes Miller, who played for UNC from 2004-07 during McGrath’s time on Williams’ staff.