Jason Capel knew exactly what his Appalachian State team was going to face at the Smith Center on Saturday evening.
To Capel's credit, and that of his team, the Mountaineers did not let the Tar Heels' overwhelming advantage in size and athleticism deflate them. Appalachian State played just as hard down 29 points as they did when they cut it to four (34-30) in the first half or 14 (88-74) in the second half.
"You have to congratulate Jason and his club for continuing to play and doing a nice job defensively and making some shots," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "At times I thought we did a nice job defensively, but then in that stretch in the second half … we had our biggest lead at 29, all of a sudden it was 15 or something like that."
Carolina responded as expected when the Mountaineers drew close. Tyler Zeller scored 31 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, while John Henson scored 17 points and got six rebounds. Kendall Marshall did his usual job of running the team and feeding his teammates for easy baskets.
Marshall finished with 13 assists and two turnovers. He is averaging better than 10 assists per game.
"I've seen Kendall play quite a bit," Capel said. "He played for the AAU program I played for: Boo Williams. Kendall is a special player. From the point guard position, he controls the team.
"He doesn't turn it over. This is a high-octane machine these guys have going right here. And he has the keys to it. He gets the ball where he wants it to go. He runs the team. When you have seven guys, let's be honest, they are all going to play in the NBA, that guy is the one who gets the ball to them."
For anyone who follows Carolina basketball, Marshall is clearly the best passer in a Tar Heel uniform since Ed Cota, who played with Capel. So Capel would know as well as anyone what a point guard such as Marshall can do when he is surrounded by gifted athletes the way Cota was.
"It's similar to how Ed was when he was surrounded by Antawn [Jamison], Vince [Carter] and Shammond [Williams]," Capel said. "Very similar to that, and [Marshall] will throw that ball from anywhere. I told our guys, 'If you're not looking that means the guy is open. The only thing you're going to see is the Nike sign come across your eyes.'
"I think they saw that tonight."
Watching the Tar Heels brought back some memories for Capel.
"Ed told us: 'Just run,'" Capel said. '"Just run. You may not think you're open, but I'll find you.' These guys, they just run. They trust Kendall is going to find them, and he trusts them to catch the ball. And they do. It's a beautiful marriage of talent but having a guy who is able to share things around and keep that talent cohesive."
The Mountaineers got to see this collection of athletes do exactly what their coach told them they would do. Capel said that no matter how he tried to prepare them, there was not way to fully do so. He could not simulate the athleticism the Tar Heels bring to the court.
"Nothing can prepare you for what you were going to see out there, but we tried to simulate as much as possible," Capel said. "We're proud that we competed. We didn't just play hard. We competed. We didn't take a step back when they punched us in the mouth.
"We kept coming forward. We got down 29 and we stayed together. That is part of the process [of building]. We fought them tooth and nail and gave it our best shot. It's something we can build upon and carry over to our next game.
"Everything they ran, I knew it was coming," Capel said. "We tried to simulate all week how fast the break was going to be, Tyler Zeller. But nothing can prepare you for a 7-footer running that fast. It's just impossible to do."
But it was still a satisfying night, all in all, for Capel and his team.
"I haven't been back here a lot," Capel said. "It was good to come back. It was good to share a moment with Coach Williams. It was good to see a lot of faces I know, people who meant a lot to me. It was good to be home."