Going for 40
Carolina crushed Evansville 97-48 on Tuesday night at the Smith Center, as well it should.
But this game was about far more than the spread in the final score.
In fact, this game had little to do with Evansville. This game was about showing the Tar Heels learned some lessons from their two early season losses.
"They took us out of everything," Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. "We had a hard time just getting ball reversals. They beat us to screens. We didn't screen very well. They played with a lot of intensity. All the credit goes to them."
The Tar Heels (7-2) said the point was to have victory be a byproduct of a much greater goal -- to maintain their concentration and intensity, regardless of the score.
"We're playing for March, not any particular team," senior forward Tyler Zeller said.
And therein lies the goal for this stretch of nine consecutive home games: to build the habits this team lacked at the start of the season. The players need to prove to themselves and the coaching staff they have learned from their sometimes casual approach to the game and their inconsistencies in executing.
"We learned that just having talent doesn't win games," said sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall, who had six assists and three turnovers. "We're starting to put things together."
This is the kind of game that Carolina would often coast during some point and still win by a huge margin. What made the Tar Heels' performance stand out against Evansville was that UNC just kept hammering away on the Aces, regardless of score or time remaining in the game.
"Everybody is hungry and wanting to play better," said Dexter Strickland, who held his man to 1-of-11 shooting.
Marshall conceded that he was concerned beforehand, fearing how the team might respond with a sparse crowd and an overmatched opponent.
"I was most worried about how we were going to start this game," Marshall said.
The team quickly answered Marshall's questions. Then later in the game, with a 40-point lead, the starters forced a shot-clock violation. That was how consistently hard the Tar Heels played on this night.
And that was the goal when Coach Roy Williams wrote on the board in the locker room before the game to not take off any plays.
Williams reinforced that message at halftime, with Carolina leading 52-22.
"Coach came in at halftime and said, 'Don't worry about the score,'" Marshall said. "He said to just keep playing hard and build good habits."
The true sign that this team performed as expected was Williams' demeanor afterward. Oftentimes he is angry following a game such as this because the team's mental focus wanders when the spread grows and the team gets bored.
Not this time.
"It was a good game for us," Williams said. "We should win the game, but I thought our kids had great focus. If we would have had that kind of focus for 40 minutes a couple of other times this year it would have helped us out a great deal."
Zeller said the Tar Heels are learning that if they want to get to where they wish to go, they must push themselves relentlessly.
"There is a lot that goes into it," Zeller said. "You have to be able to play the whole game and put the effort into it. If you come out in the second half and just go through the motions and don't play any defense, you're not really building any good habits. You're not learning.
"We see how hard we have to go each day. We were going hard, but you have to go harder; you have to get better. You have to do it every day. It's tough. I'll be the first to admit it's hard to go to practice every day and be excited and go as hard as possible. But it's something you have to do."