UNC picked up its second victory over a ranked opponent this season on Saturday by defeating UCLA to the tune of 89-76. The triumph over the No. 22 Bruins is the Tar Heels’ second-most impressive win of the year to date, falling only behind an 89-81 handling of then-No. 2 Maryland earlier this month.
The home matchup against the Terrapins demonstrated why North Carolina is capable of taking down anyone in the country. On Saturday, however, the Heels showed why they’ll be a serious threat to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
The win over UCLA was UNC’s fourth at a neutral site this season. The team opened up the year in Annapolis, Maryland, against Temple, and it downed Northwestern and Kansas State in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City.
While those four victories collectively represent why Roy Williams’ group could do some damage in March, the fact that it came out on the right side of Saturday’s contest carries even more weight.
The game had the feel of an NCAA Tournament showdown.
Played in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on national television, the two ranked programs battled it out through the first three-quarters of the matchup before the Tar Heels pulled away in the last 10 minutes.
Despite struggling with mental toughness at times this season, particularly in road losses at Northern Iowa and Texas, UNC was the more disciplined team Saturday afternoon. Although Williams’ squad fell behind early, trailing by 11 after a Bryce Alford three-pointer just over nine minutes into the game, the momentum shifted when Carolina buckled down defensively.
The Heels began forcing turnovers, and they capitalized on those opportunities. On the afternoon, UNC had only eight turnovers to UCLA’s 17, scoring 24 points off of those miscues compared to seven points scored by the Bruins.
Power forward Brice Johnson was another key for North Carolina.
The senior was benched for an eight-and-a-half-minute stretch early (Williams told reporters after the game that he sat the big man for using profanity) but finished with a career-high 27 points on 11-of-12 shooting. In addition, Johnson pulled down a team-best nine rebounds.
UCLA forward Tony Parker dominated the boards on the other end of the floor early, especially while Johnson watched from the sideline, but the 6-9, 260-pound frontcourt force was overwhelmed by the Tar Heels’ stifling defense late in the opening half. Parker ended up with six turnovers, and foul trouble caused him to be less of a factor down the stretch.
As the Bruins’ post players began to rack up fouls, UNC was able to take advantage by attacking the basket. Marcus Paige himself had an off game going 2-of-9 from the field, and his team made only four of 19 attempts beyond the perimeter, but the Heels compensated for that with 58 points in the paint.
That production down low helped solidify the victory, boosting Paige and Co. to 9-2 on the year.
Plenty more challenges await UNC, with ACC play tipping off against Clemson on Dec. 30. While the conference slate should have the Tar Heels battle-tested going into the Big Dance, the team’s success against non-league foes shouldn’t be overlooked.
Four times North Carolina has stepped onto a neutral court so far, and four times it walked away with a win. In their most recent meeting, the Heels did so against exactly the type of team they’ll face when they’re playing for all the marbles in three months.