North Carolina counting on youngsters against UNLV

NCAA Basketball

North Carolina is putting its fortunes on the offensive end in the hands of freshmen.

It’s just a matter of which newcomers will be most crucial for the No. 16 Tar Heels when they meet UNLV in a first-round game of the relocated Maui Invitational on Monday night at the downtown arena in Asheville, N.C.

“We weren’t nearly as smooth offensively as I wanted us to be,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said of the season-opening 79-60 victory against visiting College of Charleston.

But there were moments to relish for the Tar Heels after one game. Many of those came from the backcourt combination of freshmen Caleb Love and R.J. Davis.

“It was a different vibe,” North Carolina forward Armando Bacot said of the newcomers handling the ball.

Davis and Love were the first pair of freshman guards to start North Carolina’s first game of the season since Bobby Frasor and Marcus Ginyard in 2005-06.

Love posted 17 points in his college debut, while Davis scored 11. Love said he likes the possibilities.

“The team goes as the point guard goes,” Love said. “(Davis and I) have to get better at more chemistry. Us as a backcourt, I think we’re so lethal.”

It wasn’t all smooth for the Tar Heels in the first game. They saw a 14-point lead turn into a one-point deficit before finding their footing again.

“I liked what happened to our team,” Williams said of dealing with the Cougars’ second-half comeback.

UNLV didn’t have such a good ending to its first game of the season. The Runnin’ Rebels lost 91-78 to visiting Montana State despite Bryce Hamilton’s 27 points.

There’s lots for second-year coach T.J. Otzelberger to fix with his team. Among the tasks: creating energy without fans in the stands.

“It is something we are going to continue to work on and drive home because we have to be a lot better than we were from an effort and competitive standpoint from start to finish,” Otzelberger said.

Nick Blake notched 16 points for the Runnin’ Rebels in the opener. Only three scholarship players had appeared in a game for UNLV prior to the Montana State game.

On the to-do list for North Carolina is an improved shooting performance.

“I think we’re going to be a much better shooting team than we were last year,” Williams said. “We didn’t show it (in the first game).”

New faces also could play a key role for the Tar Heels. One of them is freshman Day’Ron Sharpe, who scored 13 points in his debut. Walker Kessler and Puff Johnson are likely to see more action after some of their preseason activity was reduced due to COVID-19 protocols.

“They’re back with us,” Williams said. “They’re good and gave us a few minutes. Hopefully they’ll help us down the road.”

North Carolina holds a 4-1 all-time series lead vs. UNLV. They most recently met on Dec. 29, 2012, in a game won by the Tar Heels.

The Maui Invitational was moved from Hawaii because of the coronavirus pandemic. Otzelberger is counting on his team improving before the Mountain West season.

“Those are opportunities we will embrace as we continue to move our program forward,” he said.

North Carolina and UNLV are in the same bracket of the tournament with Alabama and Stanford, with a semifinal matchup coming Tuesday and a consolation-bracket game for Monday night’s losing teams.

–Field Level Media

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