Despite a slow start that delivered a 6-0 lead at the first media timeout, the Tar Heels (10-2) relied on defense and offensive rebounding to gradually stretch that margin to 28 points before entering halftime with a 48-22 advantage.
Justin Watts (9 pts, 5 rebs) sparked an 11-0 early in the second half to give UNC a 61-28 lead and a 16-1 spurt several minutes later opened up a 46-point differential.
Dexter Strickland and Jame Michael McAdoo paced North Carolina with 14 points each, while P.J. Hairston added 13 points. Reggie Bullock posted his first career double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Bryan Hammond led Nicholls (4-8) with 15 points on 7-of-13 shooting.
North Carolina shot 43.5 percent on 37-of-85 shooting and held Nicholls to 31.4 percent (22-of-70). UNC won the rebounding battle, 72-35, and forced 23 turnovers.
The Tar Heels have now won 53 straight games at the Smith Center against non-conference opponents.
INSIDE THE GAME
Lack of Focus Leads to Slow Starts
There was little, if any, doubt that North Carolina was going to notch its 10th win of the season against the Colonels. The problem was that the Tar Heels knew that every bit as much as the viewing public.
UNC appeared lackadaisical in the opening six minutes of play, missing nine of its first 12 field goal attempts and committing three turnovers. Roughly 90 seconds later, the entire second unit had entered the game. Once the starters returned following the 12-minute media timeout, they went on a 16-4 run to open up a 30-11 lead.
"For us to be the team we want to be, we have to be willing to invest," Williams said during his postgame press conference. "And we have to do it on game night, not just talk about it. I did not get this team ready to play this game. That's just bad coaching on my part. We weren't focused; we weren't ready to play."
Williams's tone turned more menacing when discussing his team's start to the second half. The Tar Heels missed their first four shots, committed a pair of turnovers and played soft defensively as Nicholls shaved five points off its halftime deficit less than three minutes in.
Williams pulled all five starters and threatened a lengthy track practice on the sideline. The ninth-year UNC head coach bristled when asked about his roster's energy level at the time of the substitution.
"I had all of the energy they needed," Williams said. "Let's understand that right now. We have practice at nine o'clock and for about 15 minutes that practice was changed to 7am – 7-to-11. So they saved their rear ends is what they did."
The starters returned at the 11:43 mark with a 63-32 lead and responded with a 16-1 spurt to get back into the good graces of their coach.
"I think that's the biggest mistake that we made tonight, just underestimating that team and taking it light because they're not as talented a team as us or as Texas," Strickland said. "We've just got to keep our focus and go out there and give it our all."
Shots were not falling for the Tar Heels early in the first half on Monday, but they made up for those struggles by attacking the glass and dominating the boards. It took roughly eight minutes for UNC to build a 14-5 lead, needing 14 offensive rebounds and 14 second-chance points to get there.
UNC set a new rebounding high (62) during the Roy Williams era against Mississippi Valley State on Nov. 20 and then matched that total 17 days later against Evansville. The Tar Heels rocketed past that record on Monday with 72 total rebounds, 37 more than their opponents.
The 72 rebounds ties for second-most in school history and the most since 1956 (78 vs. Furman).
North Carolina scored 36 points off 31 offensive rebounds, which ranks second in program history since the school began tracking offensive rebounds in 1986-87. UNC's 41 defensive rebounds equals the sixth-most since '86-'87.
"We dominated the boards because we were bigger [and] more gifted," Williams said. "And we had a tremendous number of offensive rebounds because we missed so many shots. That's a bad thing right there – I'd just assume have no offensive rebounds and make every shot that we take."
Tyler Zeller (11), John Henson (11) and Bullock became the first UNC trio to record double-digit rebounds since Henson, Deon Thompson and Marcus Ginyard accomplished that feat during the NIT semifinal against Rhode Island on Mar. 30, 2010.
Free Throws Issues… Again
The Tar Heels entered this week ranked 22nd nationally in field goal percentage (49.3) and 14th in 3-point field goal percentage (41.2), which makes their free throw percentage – 64.7, good for 255th nationally – even more mind-boggling.
Eight different Tar Heels missed a free throw in the first half en route to a 7-for-21 group effort. Three more UNC players missed free throws after the break, but UNC knocked down 14 of its 20 attempts to finish the game with a 51.2 shooting percentage (21-of-41) from the line.
Williams told reporters that he made a mistake by telling his team to come in early on Monday to shoot extra free throws.
"You won't be hearing me say that anymore," Williams said.
Bullock dismissed the notion that poor free shooting is contagious.
"I think it's just more mental," the sophomore wing said. "Coach is always talking about stepping up to the free throw line, making big-time plays and knocking free throws down. We shot poorly from the free throw line tonight. I think it's just more mental, so we've just got to get our reps up on our free throws and be able to knock them down when game time comes."