CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP)—Roy Williams had promised there would be times when his North Carolina team looked ready to make a serious run at defending the national championship.
And then there would be days like Sunday, when the sixth-ranked Tar Heels commit “silly” turnovers, don’t put opponents away and lack intensity.
It’s why Williams was so irked by the time the Tar Heels had finished a tougher-than-should’ve-been 88-77 win over Valparaiso. He saw his team blow much of a 24-point second-half lead and look a little shaky after a promising start to the season. And with his team preparing for a tough stretch which begins with a trip to New York to play No. 16 Ohio State on Thursday in the 2K Sports Classic, Williams wasn’t shy in letting his team know it has to play much better.
“We have no chance in New York if we play this kind of basketball,” Williams said flatly.
It just wasn’t coachspeak, either. Sure, the Tar Heels (3-0) won each game by double digits this week, but their performance against the Crusaders (0-2) didn’t offer a lot to feel good about. They committed 14 turnovers despite playing against a zone defense much of the game. Their defense repeatedly gave up several baskets on backdoor cuts, with several coming against their big men who are having to defend more of the court as smaller teams spread the floor.
Valparaiso made 12 3-pointers, including a 7-for-10 performance during a second half in which the Crusaders shot 53 percent and quietly inched their way back into the game.
Perhaps most alarmingly, North Carolina didn’t show a huge sense of urgency against a determined team that just wouldn’t quit. Perhaps it has something to do with the number of young players who are inheriting prominent roles with the departures of Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington from last year’s title team, a point illustrated by some of the players’ comments afterward.
“I could feel it coming a little bit,” fifth-year senior Marcus Ginyard said. “In warmups, we didn’t seem like we had that pep in our step. Nobody was really talking. We just didn’t have that intensity and it showed tonight.”
Yet sophomore point guard Larry Drew II didn’t pick up on that pregame vibe.
“Honestly, I thought everything was all good,” Drew said. “But Coach kind of told us before the game, ‘It seems like you lacked a little intensity out there for the shootaround,’ and ‘You seemed a little dead in the locker room.’ I felt I was ready to go out and play, but I had a lot of mental lapses and too many turnovers.”
Deon Thompson scored 16 of his 20 points after halftime to lead the Tar Heels, while sophomore Ed Davis had a career-high 16 points. North Carolina led just 38-31 at halftime, but scored on 12 of 13 possessions to build a 67-43 lead midway through the second half and look on its way to another easy win.
But Valparaiso hung around, pulling as close as 84-75 on a 3-pointer from Brandon McPherson with 1:47 left before the Tar Heels finally closed it out.
Brandon Wood scored a career-best 30 points and hit six 3-pointers for the Crusaders, while McPherson finished with 20 points.
“Tonight was a big step,” Valparaiso coach Homer Drew said. “We shared the ball. We looked for people. Our offense was very efficient. I thought our defense was trying to keep it tight. I was proud that our guys continued to battle and battle and battle.”
The Tar Heels know they can’t afford a repeat performance considering what awaits. Starting with Ohio State, North Carolina could end up playing five ranked opponents in eight games. That stretch includes a home game against No. 2 Michigan State in a rematch of last year’s national title game, a trip to No. 4 Kentucky and game against No. 3 Texas in Dallas Cowboys Stadium on Dec. 19.
“This is wake-up call for everybody,” said Drew, who had 13 points and six assists. “I’m not trying to travel all the way to New York just to get embarrassed. This team, we have a lot of potential and we need to wake up now and know the games aren’t going to get any easier.”