The season opening 83-80 win over Gardner-Webb left many of the Tar Heel faithful with a bit of cautious optimism and a hint of worry. Senior David Noel hit the game winner last Friday night, but had a few words for his fellow Heels just before Tuesday night’s game against the Vikings.
“I told the guys before we ran out,” Noel said, “'Last game was a great game, but let’s make this one a blow out because I don’t feel like hitting a game winning shot today.'”
Cleveland State came out of the blocks quickly leading 5-2 on a three pointer by junior guard Raheem Moss 1:18 into the contest. But Noel’s request was granted and questions about jitters were answered in a hurry as a three-pointer by Marcus Ginyard less than two minutes later capped a 9-0 run giving Carolina an 11-5 lead and starting the Heels on a blowout pace.
With nerves in check, the Tar Heels played a complete game from start to finish.
“I was real comfortable the first night,” Tyler Hansbrough said following the game when asked about his comfort level during the game. “For me, I was real excited about my first college game and I hadn’t played in an atmosphere like here. I was real comfortable both nights, but I knew what to expect tonight. Everything flowed more smoothly. A lot people weren’t as nervous as they were (in that first game). We did what we do in practice and it carried over into the game.”
Hansbrough admitted that his injured left big toe affected his play, but he and the rest of the Heels bared little resemblance to the team that took the floor days prior.
“I think our play the other night got us much more focused to play,” head coach Roy Williams said following the win, “Even Mike [Garland, CSU’s head coach] said that we didn't play like the team that he saw on tape the other night. And I don't think we did. The other night we were so tight and our plays led to so many turnovers. Tonight, I thought we were really focused.”
Carolina led 14-9 at the first official timeout during which Sean May and Raymond Felton were introduced to the 16,422 in attendance. Jackie Manuel and Phil Ford joined the current Charlotte Bobcats behind the Carolina bench but were overlooked by the PA announcer, but not the crowd, as a deafening roar showered down on the stars returning to see their former mates in action.
The ovation appeared to rattle the Vikings as the Tar Heels' onslaught began in earnest from that point. In perhaps his best half of action in his career, Byron Sanders displayed a game not previously seen from the senior. Sanders’ seven points and two blocked shots spurred the Heels to a 49-21 lead at the break.
“We need everyone on this team to step up and Byron did a great job of that tonight," Noel said of his classmate. "He’s going to continue to do that because he’s one of the senior leaders along with me.”
With the outcome never in doubt, the second half provided more of the same as the Tar Heel defensive pressure forced Cleveland State into multiple rushed shots and provided easy opportunities for a Carolina team willing to take full advantage of every Viking miscue.
“Our key tonight was definitely to pressure them,” point guard Bobby Frasor said. “The last game we backed off a little but, but tonight we got into the passing lanes, got them into traps, rushed their shots and turned them into easy baskets for us so it worked out for us.”
If the first half featured the unsung Sanders, the second would be Wes Miller’s turn at burying the visitors from Cleveland State. Two three pointers from Miller sandwiched a Noel bucket and the Heels pushed the lead to 39 with 12:28 remaining.
From there, every Tar Heel player would effectively contribute to the big win, including the walk-ons that provide so much to this team out of Smith Center spotlights.
“For us to be successful this year, everybody’s got to do their jobs,” Ginyard commented following his 12-point, four-rebound performance, “That’s everybody on down from the starting five to the end of the bench. Everybody did their job tonight and we were successful.”
Sanders’ free throws put Carolina on the century mark plateau with 4:18 remaining and Coach Williams cleared the bench much to the delight of crowd. Dewey Burke, Surry Wood, Will Robinson and Thomas Wilkins joined Mike Copeland on the floor for the remaining four minutes of action and did not miss a beat while running the lead 59 on a basket by Copeland with 35 seconds to go. A Viking basket provided the final margin as the Heels improved to 2-0 on the young season.
In the win, Ginyard, Miller and Frasor combined for 11 assists and just one turnover, a fact not lost on Noel.
“It is something we are going to need from them on a consistent basis, every night,” Noel said, “For them to be able to handle the point guard spot and have only one turnover together, that’s something big that they need to step up and do. As long as they are doing that, they can lead this motor that we have.”
Next up for the Tar Heels is a Friday night matchup against UC-Santa Barbara at 8:30 p.m. in the Smith Center.