CHAPEL HILL--- North Carolina opened its 2008-2009 season Saturday afternoon with an 86-71 victory over Penn in the Smith Center, in a game in which the Tar Heels never seemed to find a real groove. Despite getting a lot of quality shots---especially early in the game---UNC shot just 46.7 percent on the day. The Tar Heels were just nine-of-27 (33.3 percent) from the field in the second half, which allowed Penn to keep the game respectably close.
"It was a nice 'W' the first day," said UNC head coach Roy Williams. "I think one thing---I think the ruse from the idea of playing exhibition games is getting kids in front of a crowd. I thought we were a little more tight than I wanted us to be."
The visiting Quakers stayed within four to eight points of the top-ranked Tar Heels until UNC went on a 13-1 run over a four-minute stretch to take a 46-29 advantage with less than two minutes left in the first half.
It appeared that UNC might run away with it over the final 20 minutes, but it just didn't happen that way.
"Early in the game, I thought every shot we took was a good shot, but we didn't make very many of them. Give credit to Penn for their defensive play," said Williams.
"It was a tough shooting game for all of us," said junior Wayne Ellington. "We would have liked to have done some things defensively a lot better, but it's our first game. We didn't start off so hot last year as well. You learn. You've got to learn from the mistakes that we made and pick it up."
Despite the 46.7 shooting clip from the field, the Tar Heels recorded 22 assists against just 13 turnovers, and converted 23 of 33 free throw attempts over the course of the game.
"I think our shot selection was really well, actually, and just moving the ball and being unselfish, just getting the best shot for our team and not just for individual players, so I think that we moved the ball around well and got good shots," said junior Deon Thompson.
Penn made it difficult for the Tar Heels to get into a rhythm but playing a tough zone defense that packed the middle and forced them into shooting more from the outside than they would typically prefer.
Given that UNC employs a man-to-man defensive approach almost exclusively, the Tar Heel players rarely if ever work in practice against a good zone defense---a challenge that was magnified against Penn.
'We haven't worked very much against the zone, because we don't play zone ourselves," said Williams. "When I try to get the 'Blue Team'---four walk-ons and other other guy---to play zone, they don't have the size or the expertise to play against it. I thought that was good on their (Penn's) part. We did some nice things, but we just didn't shoot the ball very well."
"Wayne Ellington, for example, has just been shooting it fantastic. I don't know if it was (Friday) afternoon's practice or (Saturday) morning's Dummy offense, he made six straight three's," Williams added. "So, he's not normally going to go five-for-15. We didn't shoot the ball as well as we have been shooting it, but I think we are good to be a very, very good shooting team."
While disappointed with the way Ellington shot the ball, Williams was pleased with some of the other things he did---recording two steals, five assists, five rebounds, and a blocked shot.
"Five-for-15 (shooting), Ray Charles could see that's not very good," said Williams of Ellington. "But he chased down two long rebounds today. I didn't say he played poorly---I said he shot it poorly. But no, he did some nice things."
"That's something I've been emphasizing, just to make sure I'm getting in the passing lanes, to make sure I'm keeping my man in front of me, and being in the right spots at the right time---trying to be a leader also on the defensive end of the floor," said Ellington. "That's part of being a basketball player, and just trying to be a complete player. When you're shot's not falling---you're not making all your shots---you've got to be able to do something else. Distribute the ball, get some rebounds, play defense, get out and get some steals---just try to do other things."
"I didn't get frustrated, you know. I just tried to do other things," Ellington added. "My shot wasn't falling like I would have liked it to, so I concentrated on different aspects of the game, just get some stops defensively, get in the passing lanes, get some steals---just something else.
"Their style is tough to play against," said Williams about Penn's defense. "They spread you---we had Ed and Tyler and Deon out there playing guys on the floor---and they're not used to playing out there. Tyler Hansbrough has had more experience in sliding his feet better than any of the other big guys we have, but he wasn't playing."
"It was just kind of hard, because they went to zone," said Thompson, who made seven-of-11 shots and scored 17 points. "I felt myself shooting a lot more turn-around jump shots instead of going to the basket. Playing against the zone, it's just hard to do, I think, but I tried to post up the best I could."
"They zoned us a lot, and it was tough to get up and down, but at the same time, I think we as perimeter players, we've got to move a little bit more," said Ellington, who tallied 13 points." Our post guys have got to move inside, also, and we've got to get the ball to them. We've got to create more plays instead of standing around."
Williams also praised Penn for doing some things offensively that were difficult to defend.
Quakers guard Tyler Bernardini led all scorers with 26 points on nine-of-18 shooting, including four three-pointers. It was the second straight game in which Bernardini scored 26 points against the Tar Heels.
"Bernardini, he's a very good player to begin with," said Williams. "He's All-World when he plays against us. He's played two games (against us) and got 26 both games. He does some really nice things. They made some tough shots. Bernardini's last one (three-pointer), we switched out two different guys on them. I think we fouled him, and he sort of double-clutched it from three and still made it."
"They (Penn) do one thing that's very difficult to guard---it's a dribble-handoff," Williams added. "The guy is dribbling the ball, and all of a sudden he's handing it off, and you've got to get on the 'high' side, and you know, you don't know if he's going to fake the handoff and you jump out and take it on the basket. It's a difficult play, and their big guys do it a lot, so it's something that's unusual for our big guys."
"They're getting a lot better," said Ellington of Penn. "We've played them all three years I've been here. They're starting to get a lot better. I know they've got a new coach and they've got a new system, so it's been working for them obviously."
UNC took a 48-33 lead into halftime, but the Quakers refused to get beaten down in the second half.
The Tar Heels shooting woes---combined with some ill-timed turnovers--- allowed the Quakers to put together a 10-3 run to pull within 76-66 at the 4:00 mark of the second half.
"You had four straight possessions where you had two turnovers and two shots that missed, and at that point, they made a three and then a lay-up and got fouled on the other end," said Williams. "It (the UNC lead) stayed 15 to 18 or something the whole second half, and then I guess they cut it to 10, and I don't know if they ever had the ball within 10, but those four possessions, you have four possessions that you come up empty and they score six on the other end, and that's how it gets from 18 to 12."
"I don't think it's okay (to come out flat in the second half), but it's going to happen," said senior Danny Green, who recorded 12 points, four rebounds, and three steals. "It's the first game, the first 'real' game for the young guys, and the first game of the season for us, and we don't have a full roster right now. A couple of guys are hurt. We've still got to keep playing. I think we did all right once we got it going a little bit. We got some of the kinks out. The little mistakes here and there we'll fix in practice."
While the Tar Heels held on down the stretch---primarily from the free throw line---that didn't mean that Williams and the players weren't a little frustrated with how the team performed for much of the second half.
"I got a little frustrated at one point when we turned it over twice in a row and had two shots that were not the best shots that have been taken," said Williams. "If you look at our big guys in the first half, they were nine-for-12. In the whole first half, we were 19-for-33. Those other guys are 10-for-21. We should have thrown it in there more, but I do think against the zone, I don't think we should just go around and shoot three-point shots just because they want to play zone to take our inside game away."
"I told the guys at halftime it was partly the perimeter guys not throwing it in, and the big guys didn't move as well," Williams added. "In fact, in the second half, I thought it was more the big guys not moving than it was the perimeter players, except for Bobby (Frasor's) pass that was thrown away and Ty (Lawson's) pass that was thrown away. I thought it was the big guys that didn't move as much as they should have."
"We had some mental lapses defensively, and they started to make a comeback," said Green. "Against really good teams we can't do that, because they will capitalize. Penn is a good team. They came back, like any other good team would. They fought, and they continued to keep fighting and come back, and the teams in our league, they're definitely going to come back, and we'll probably be in the locker room holding our heads wishing we had done something better, because they're going to take advantage of it."
"We just got kind of sloppy at times, especially in the second half," said Thompson. "I think we didn't come out with that same intensity and effort that we'd had in the first half. If we would have come out the way we did in the first half in the second half, I think the score would have been different. We probably would have blown it open."
Playing against an intelligent Penn squad, a team that protected the ball well and didn't make a ton of mental errors, Williams was pleased to pick up 16 turnovers and nine steals defensively---although he would have preferred to have held them under the 40 percent shooting (24-for-60) clip that they had.
"40 percent, I'd like it to be less than that, but I do like the fact that we had 16 turnovers against a very intelligent team," said Williams. "All in all, it was one of the few times out in front of a big crowd, and the first time for some guys. You've got to be pleased it went in the correct column. They had six of their top seven guys back, and they're intelligent kids."
Freshman Tyler Zeller led UNC in scoring with 18 points, with Thompson's 17 points coming in next.
In all, six different Tar Heels (Zeller, Thompson, Ellington, Green, Ty Lawson, and Ed Davis) scored in double figures, a strong indication that the team did a good job of getting the ball around and working for good shots.
"Six guys in double-figures; I like that part," said Williams.
One area that the Tar Heels will definitely want to improve is on the glass, as the Tar Heels allowed Penn 32 rebounds and recorded 42 themselves.
Penn's nine offensive rebounds were more than UNC would like to allow, and while Penn didn't necessarily have a major size disadvantage, clearly the Tar Heels have to get better in this statistical area.
"If you look at it, they (Penn) went 6-8 and 6-8, and what did we go? 6-9 and 6-11. Their 'three' man was 6-6, and our 'three' man is 6-6, so it wasn't that much smaller," said Williams. "Still, it's the first game. We're not going to be perfect. We gained a great deal from playing the scrimmage against Vanderbilt, because it was very, very good competition."
"I've got to rebound the ball more," said Thompson. "I think that's the biggest thing for our team, because he (Hansbrough) is a leading rebounder in the ACC and for our team. We're going to have to start rebounding the ball more. That's probably the biggest adjustment, just trying to rebound the ball more. Myself and Tyler and Ed worked together inside and moved around, and that's what I'm pretty sure Coach will have us working on."
"I feel like as a group collectively we have to pick it up," said Ellington. "It's not necessarily just score more, but be able to pick each other up."