Luke DeCock: Against the stiffest of defensive tests, North Carolina shows its full potential

Luke DeCock, The News & Observer on

Published in Basketball

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina was up 15 when Elliot Cadeau got tangled with a Tennessee player and ended up tumbling into the Volunteers’ bench. In the Smith Center’s upper level, a North Carolina fan yelled out, loud enough for everyone to hear in a quiet building waiting to see Cadeau emerge from the bevy of humanity at the end of the bench, but also echoing back decades.

“Typical Rick Barnes basketball! Typical!”

Ah yes. Never forget. Twenty-eight years after then-Clemson coach Barnes and Dean Smith had it out, and were summoned to the late Gene Corrigan’s home and commanded by the commissioner to put aside their differences, Barnes’ name is still taken in vain in Chapel Hill. The shade of orange has changed over time, from Howard’s Rock to Rocky Top, with Burnt between, but the memory hasn’t faded.

Hubert Davis was on to the NBA by the time things boiled over with Barnes and Smith, and none of UNC’s current roster was born yet — not even Armando Bacot! — but it’s hard to imagine the Tar Heels looking any more motivated than they did Wednesday night.

They jumped out to a 24-point lead against the best defensive team in the country so far — even with Tennessee shooting better than 60% — and held on over the final six minutes as the Volunteers nibbled the lead down to single digits but never closer than six. The Tar Heels hit triple digits with 17 seconds to go on their way to a 100-92 win, less stunning in the event, perhaps, than the way it unfolded.


It’s really the UNC team people have been waiting four years to see, even including those few weeks in February and March and April 2022. That was, in essence, a team on an incredible heater. This was a blend of every ingredient, speed and skill and stoutness. Zinging the ball around and up the court. Knocking down open 3-pointers. Going 10 deep on the bench. Pushing the pace. Moving the ball. Finding the open shooter. Forcing turnovers.

It took Elliot Cadeau all of six games to claim a spot in the starting lineup he won’t soon relinquish, the pass-first, shoot-second point guard this team has so sorely missed the last few seasons. He had 10 assists, no turnovers and five points, a Kendall Marshall Hat Trick. And with that, everyone has slotted where they’re supposed to be.

Everything in its right place: Bacot and R.J. Davis, secure in their roles as everyone else has fit into the open spaces around them. Harrison Ingram, who’s like a redesigned Brady Manek, scoring from everywhere. Cormac Ryan making open shots. Jalen Washington contributing. Seth Trimble and Jae’Lyn Withers doing the dirty work. Four players in double figures. Three with 20 or more.

While Wednesday was the apotheosis, it wasn’t hard to see this coming. For the first time in Hubert Davis’ tenure, all the gears seem to mesh. Even after the loss to Villanova — not flattered by the Wildcats’ 0-2 record in the Big Five after losses to Penn and St. Joe’s — the obvious potential of this team was on display Wednesday night, and facing the highest degree of difficulty possible.

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