North Carolina began putting a rough season behind by winning its opener. The presence of Harrison Barnes should also be a big help in allowing the Tar Heels to forget 2009-10.
Barnes looks to build on a strong debut when the No. 8 Tar Heels take on Hofstra in the first round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off at San Juan on Thursday.
North Carolina knocked off Lipscomb 80-66 on Friday, its first game since a 17-loss season that ended with it out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003.
Coach Roy Williams was optimistic coming into this season that it wouldn’t end like the last one did, and Barnes seemed to validate that feeling in the opener. Widely regarded as the nation’s No. 1 recruit, the 6-foot-8 forward scored 14 points on 6-of-12 shooting to go with four rebounds, two assists and a block in 27 minutes.
“He’s got a chance to be a heck of a player,” Williams said. “He’s a natural scorer, and as the game goes along and he gets more comfortable out there, I think the game will come easier to him.”
Barnes’ polished all-around game led him to being the first freshman named to The Associated Press preseason All-America team.
“I try to mostly lead through my effort,” he said. “Tyler Zeller and Larry Drew, they’ve won a championship here and I haven’t been through some of the experiences they have, so I can’t lead as vocally because I haven’t been there. But I can show up every day for practice, show up every day for games, let my game speak for itself and hopefully encourage guys to work harder.”
Barnes’ performance wasn’t the only encouraging one for the Tar Heels. Zeller scored a team-high 15 points while sophomore John Henson had a huge game, finishing with 10 points to go with career highs of 17 rebounds and seven blocked shots.
Barnes’ fellow freshmen also turned in strong debuts off the bench, as Reggie Bullock had 12 points and Kendall Marshall scored 10 with three assists.
“They’re going to be big pieces to our team as you can see,” Henson said. “They played tough and I can say that they played a lot better than I did in my debut here.”
North Carolina, though, appears to still have a ways to go to regain its championship form of two seasons ago. The Heels built a 50-36 lead but couldn’t put the Bisons away, allowing them to pull within 59-56 with 8:25 left.
They should have a good opportunity to work on closing out an opponent when they face Hofstra, which opened with a 102-62 victory over Division III Farmingdale State on Saturday. Charles Jenkins, last season’s Colonial Athletic Association player of the year, scored 26 points to lead the Pride.
Hofstra, which shot 53.7 percent and got 24 points off 20 turnovers, will be facing North Carolina for the first time.
The winner will take on Western Kentucky or Minnesota in the second round Friday.