Illinois' Mike Davis (24) dunks over UNC's Larry Drew II (11) on a fast break in the second half. ROBERT WILLETT - email@example.com
Updated: 12:47 a.m.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill -- North Carolina thought it might have a ‘big’ problem this season, what with its lack of depth in the post.
But its bigger deficiency Tuesday night during its 79-67 dismantling by No. 20 Illinois in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge was its backcourt.
Starters Larry Drew II and Dexter Strickland, along with back-ups Kendall Marshall, Leslie McDonald and Reggie Bullock, went bucket-less in the first half, accounted for 14 of their team’s 18 turnovers, and were out-played in particular by Illini guard Demetri McCamey (17 points) , who UNC coach Roy Williams called “sensational.”
Forwards John Henson (16 points) and Tyler Zeller (10) led UNC, but the performance at Assembly Hall was not the way the Tar Heels (4-3) wanted to start a tough 2 ½-week stretch that also includes a home game against No. 10 Kentucky on Saturday, and a match-up with No. 19 Texas in Greensboro on Dec. 18. They are also now 0-1 in their first road true game of the season, another not-so-positive sign considering they were 4-8 in true road games last season – with two of those victories coming in the post-season NIT.
“We didn’t make very good decisions,” Williams said of his team’s guard play. “But sometimes you make bad decisions because other people have you back on your heels -- and I think Illinois, even last year, was really good defensively. … But right now, the teams that we’ve played, their defenses have been better than our offenses by a big margin.”
Strickland finally gave UNC’s backcourt (which was 0-for-7 with seven turnovers in the first half) its first bucket of the game, with 18:02 left, on a drive to cut UNC’s deficit to 43-34. But the Tar Heels turned the ball over four times (two by Drew, one by Strickland) in the first five minutes of the second half, digging a 49-36 grave.
Carolina tried to push out of it, but the Tar Heels again struggled from the free throw line (missing 7 of their 15 foul shots in the second half); had only 2 fast break points (both in the second half); and every time they thought they might make a dent, McCamey or forward Mike Davis (20 points, 10 rebounds) seemed to have an answer.
“It never looked like he felt pressured or anything,’’ Williams said of McCamey. “….To me, the game in a nutshell was their veteran experience – their players played like veteran, experienced, good players.”
Carolina, meanwhile, looked like a team with talented-but-inconsistent players looking for both an identity and a leader.
It played solid defense to begin the game, forcing three turnovers, getting four points apiece from Zeller and Henson, and holding Illinois without a field goal for almost four minutes en route to a 10-6 lead.
But the Illini (7-1)immediately countered with a 15-4 run, including eight points from McCamey, to take a 21-14 advantage – during which Zeller picked up his third foul, forcing him to sit the last nine minutes of the half.
Freshman Harrison Barnes (eight points, 2-for-9 shooting) halted Illinois’ run, albeit briefly, with a 3-point play. And with graduate student transfer Justin Knox and Henson picking up the slack for Zeller, the Tar Heels cut their deficit back to 28-26 with 3:51 left in the half on a layup from Knox, then to 32-30 on a layup from Henson.
But after McCamey buried two free throws for the Illini and the teams traded turnovers, Justin Watts and Henson missed on UNC’s final possession of the half, while McCamey fed D.J. Richardson for a corner 3-pointer at the buzzer to give Illinois a 37-30 lead at halftime.
In all, UNC’s five guards finished 7-for-21 for the game.