Photo: Garrison Brooks
CHAPEL HILL – North Carolina’s injury-riddled basketball team finally secured the victory coach Roy Williams never really wanted to claim if he had his wishes.
When the Tar Heels beat Yale on Dec. 30, Williams moved into a tie for fourth with Dean Smith on the NCAA Division I career wins list with 879 victories. Williams repels at being compared him to his mentor he reveres, and no one doubts he is genuine. He’s been stating it for too long.
But with North Carolina’s 0-for-January – a five-game slide – he remained tied with Smith until the Tar Heels broke out of their slump with an all-around game that defeated injury depleted Miami Saturday afternoon at the Dean E. Smith Center, 94-71.
Yes, the coach in his 17th season at North Carolina after 15 at Kansas now has 880 victories and is alone in fourth place, but beating the Hurricanes (10-9, 2-7 ACC) is what that mattered to Williams. His team improved to 9-11 overall and 2-6 in ACC play while in danger of the first losing season of his career at first at UNC since 2002 under Matt Doherty.
“I know some people don’t believe me, but I really didn’t know I was this close until somebody told me this summer,” Williams said. “I desperately wanted No. 9 for this team. I’m being very honest.
“Hopefully I’ll live some after I quit and when people say you won some games, I’ll say, ‘Yeah, they were fun.’ I really haven’t evaluated where I am. That means you’re ready to quite, and I’m not ready to quit.”
From the start of the noon tipoff, North Carolina displayed ball movement, hit three point shots and was more aggressive on defense, especially without starting point guard Cole Anthony for the past eight games. The ball movement included 32 assists on 40 baskets, tying a mark for for Williams in the UNC era. The 55-percent shooting (40 of 69) was the first time the Tar Heels finished over 50 percent this season.
“We shared the ball,” Williams said. “You guy have heard me complaining about the defense and standing around too much (on offense). I don’t think we stood around today. We moved intelligently without the ball.”
Senior point guard Brandon Robinson, whose status was listed as questionable with his lingering neck injury until he managed a limited practice on Friday and still felt good Saturday morning, led the Tar Heels with a career-high 29 points, including 6-of-10 from three-point range.
"It definitely has been tough," Robinson said of leading some of the games before allowing comebacks. "To finally just maintain the lead the whole game and come out and win, it feels great. We've just got to use that momentum going into the next game."
Freshman center Armando Bacot posted a double-double of 19 points and 12 rebounds. Senior forward Garrison Brooks finished with 14 points on a day he wasn’t forced to carry the scoring load with so many players injured.
In all, North Carolina had 32 assists on 40 baskets, tying a high under Williams in Chapel Hill. Eight players scored and Williams was able to empty the bench for all 14 players.
The crowd began the afternoon watching passively. The first roar to build wasn’t until a TV timeout at 15:34 when a the video board flashed highlights from football season and then head coach Mack Brown and his players took to the court.
Brown took the microphone and thanked the fans for eight sellouts last fall, noting UNC was one of only eight schools to do so. Then he finished with saying the most important item today was to get that elusive victory for the Tar Heels and Williams.
Moments later, Robinson responded with a field goal and then junior guard Andrew Platek with a three-point field goal that sparked the first rafters-filling basketball roar of the day.
Production from Robinson is vital without Anthony, but he has been hampered by a sore neck from a car accident on Jan. 11 caused by the other driver. The injury was aggravated in the loss at Pitt on Jan. 18 when he was hit on the neck, and he was forced to sit out the Wednesday night’s overtime loss at Virginia Tech.
From Robinson on down, Tar Heels struggling with inconsistent play found a rhythm.
Platek, who had missed the Yale win and Georgia Tech loss, was 1-of-8 from three-point range at Virginia Tech and 1-of-14 since in the last four games. He hit the first of UNC’s10-three-pointers and finished with seven points.
Christian Keeling, a graduate transfer from Charleston Southern, had struggled with the step up in competition from mid-majors to the ACC, but the 6-3 guard scored nine points with four assists.
It’s been a season of tough luck for the Tar Heels with injuries following the loss of six top players from last year’s roster from graduation (three), NBA one-and-done draft picks (two) and a transfer (one).
But on this night the Tar Heels were the healthy team compared to Miami.
Hurricanes leading scorer Chris Lykes was held out with a hip flexor and fellow starting guard Kameron McGusty was out with back spasms. Freshman guards Isaiah Wong and Harlond Beverly both made their first career starts. They combined for only five points, three assists and five of the six first-half turnovers as North Carolina led at intermission, 51-27.
A week ago, Miami nearly upset No.9-ranked Florida State before falling 83-79 in overtime. But both Lykes and McGusty came up injured, turning the Hurricanes' Tuesday trip to Durham and Saturday to Chapel a Hill their own Bermuda Triangle. Miami lost at Duke 89-59 as the Blue Devils held Lykes scoreless at halftime and nine for the night.
“After the Florida State game was over those guys weren’t doing well,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “I didn’t think they’d play at Duke, but they wanted to play. I thought North Carolina shot the ball really well and defensively they caused problems for us. It just made sense to rest them (Saturday) to get better. Neither one is close to 100 percent.”
Larranaga noted the limited preparation for Tuesday night game in Durham and a Saturday afternoon contest in Chapel Hill.
“We only have six scholarship players (healthy) and we played three on three in practice,” he said. “There was not any preparation for North Carolina’s offense. We played zone. We didn’t want to get in foul trouble.”
The Tar Heels three-guard starting lineup of Black, Platek and Robinson exploited Miami’s improvised backcourt, scoring on them and making it tough for them to get into their offense.
“That was a tremendous blow for them not to have Chris,” Williams said. “They’re a lot better team with Chris at point guard. I felt badly for Jimmy (Larranaga) and his club for what they’re going through.”
The irony of that quote is Williams has been saying all year nobody feels sorry for North Carolina as a blue blood that is struggling. On an historic afternoon, the ball finally bounced the Tar Heels’ way.
"It's definitely great to e part of history," Robinson said. "Especially for me to have a chance to play here is just something I'ave always thanked him for."
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