CHAPEL HILL — From the start of Wednesday’s game against Michigan, it was clear North Carolina’s basketball team was happy to be back in the Dean E. Smith Center.
After scoring just 45 points in a blowout loss to Michigan State in Portland on Sunday night, the 13th-ranked Tar Heels opened up the floodgates in the first half of an 86-71 victory over Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
UNC (6-1) exploded for 51 points in the opening half against the Wolverines (6-2) to take a 14-point lead into the break.
The Tar Heels never looked back.
“I think everybody was excited to be back home,” said Kenny Williams, who scored 11 of his 12 points in the first five minutes of the game.
“We were out there (on the West Coast) for so long, to be back was a great feeling. I actually got those goosebumps running out of the tunnel again. We wanted to get that (bad) taste out of our mouth.”
Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said the team spent 45 minutes watching the Michigan State tape on Tuesday before turning its attention to Michigan.
“For us, it was a good bounce back after such a disappointment in the way we played on Sunday,” said Williams, whose team shot 64 percent from the field in the first half and 54 percent for the game.
“We did get better.”
Joel Berry, who scored 17 points, was thankful for the quick turnaround.
“Honestly, I’m glad we had a game tonight because if we didn’t our practice (on Tuesday) probably would’ve been hard,” said Berry, who drained a trio of 3-pointers.
“Overall, I feel like we did a pretty good job of bringing the energy.”
The Tar Heels started the second half with a 19-6 run to swell the lead out to 27 points. Michigan would fight back to trim the lead to 14 with 1:13 left to play, but would get no closer.
It was the first meeting between the Tar Heels and Wolverines since the 1993 NCAA championship game. UNC won that game 77-71 to claim the program’s third NCAA title.
Luke Maye did his part to ensure another UNC victory on Wednesday, scoring a game-high 27 points to log his fifth 20-point outing of the young season.
“It was great to be back. I love shooting at our home gym,” said Maye, who knocked down 11 of his 16 shots.
“It was great to have all of the fans back and have my family in the stands. … I think we’ve made some strides. I think the freshmen are getting better.”
Still, Roy Williams is looking for more improvement on the defensive end of the floor — particularly from his freshman post players.
“We’re mediocre right now, but I do think we can get there. The biggest leap is going to be if our big guys start getting better inside,” he said. “The big guys (Sterling Manley, Garrison Brooks and Brandon Huffman) are getting better, but we’re still not accepting responsibility on the defensive end.
“We’ve got a long way to go with the big guys defensively. But they’re working at it. Sterling’s got tremendous length, Garrison understands the game, B-Huff (Brandon Huffman) is sort of caught in the middle. … but they’ve got to buy in to the defensive end and rebounding.”
Brooks, who finished with eight points — including an emphatic dunk — and four rebounds, is starting to see progress.
“I think we’re getting better. Sometimes it looks like we’re slowly getting better, but sometimes we look really good,” Brooks said.
“I think that’s a part of being a freshman in college basketball. We could be better. I think we’re going to get better.”
Set to face Davidson in Charlotte on Friday, Berry is looking for the Tar Heels to continue growing as the season progresses.
“I don’t think we’re where we want to be, but I think we’re getting close,” he said. “We’ve just got to get the young guys to buy in to the system.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.