The fifth-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels knocked off their second Top-25 team in as many games, beating the No. 18 Florida Gators 75-64 to earn fifth place at the 2014 Battle 4 Atlantis.
Three games in three days can be exhausting. Both teams entered Friday having played a lot of basketball recently. Former North Carolina star Sean May commented on how fatigue can often affect shooters, thus changing a team’s game plan:
The Tar Heels didn’t show any ill effects from all the time on the court. They shot an impressive 23-of-54 from the floor and 6-of-13 from three-point range. Kennedy Meeks finished with a double-double, scoring 18 points and collecting 14 rebounds. Marcus Paige also played well with 16 points and four assists.
Meanwhile, this loss compounds what’s been a slow start to 2014 for Florida. The Gators are now 3-3, with the two other defeats coming to Miami (FL) and Georgetown.
Head coach Billy Donovan is counting on short-term frustration to provide long-term gains.
“Before December 1st, we’re going to know a lot about our team,” he said before Friday’s game, per Antonya English of the Tampa Bay Times. “Of course, we’ve had to deal with some injuries and some suspensions, but I still think we’re finding out things about our team, which is good.”
Kasey Hill and Michael Frazier II combined to score 37 points, but they received little support to speak of. Dorian Finney-Smith really struggled, missing eight of his shots and scoring four points.
One of the problems Florida’s encountered over the last few years is a dearth of scoring. The Gators offense has really sputtered to start the 2014 season, averaging 63.4 points (255th) on 40.1 percent shooting (259th).
The Gators defense is more times than not enough to compensate for whatever issues are plaguing the team offensively. In the first half against the Tar Heels, Florida’s scoring troubles were impossible to ignore.
Florida’s first points didn’t come until 6:45 into the game, with Kasey Hill getting the Gators to within 10 points, 12-2. It’s hard to score when you miss 10 shots to start, via Chris Harry of GatorZone.com:
The Tar Heels’ lead continued to grow, with UNC eventually getting on top 25-8 with 7:05 until halftime.
ESPN’s Andy Katz noted that having a healthy Eli Carter would’ve helped Florida but that there are clear issues Donovan needs to resolve:
North Carolina continued applying pressure throughout the first half, carrying a 39-23 lead into the locker room. As a team, the Tar Heels shot 15-of-26 from the floor, with J.P. Tokoto, Meeks and Justin Jackson scoring eight points apiece. Marcus Paige added seven points and three assists.
On the other side, Florida shot 9-of-31, including 1-of-15 from behind the arc in the first half. The Gators also turned the ball over nine times, compared to four for North Carolina. Frazier and Finney-Smith combined to go 4-of-14, scoring 12 points.
Kevin Brockway of The Gainesville Sun spoke with ESPN’s Jay Bilas, who commented that Florida’s failure to establish a post offense created problems away from the basket:
After that shaky first half, Florida started out the second well, closing the gap to eight points, 43-35, 4:33 in after making four of its first five shots. Sports Illustrated‘s Seth Davis felt that the Gators were benefiting from UNC’s sloppy play on the offensive end:
However, the Tar Heels righted the ship and found their groove, slowly earning a 15-point lead, 58-43, with 8:13 left to play. Andrew Carter of the Charlotte Observer highlighted how well North Carolina’s defense has performed through the team’s first six games:
While Florida didn’t capitulate as time ticked away in the second half, the Gators couldn’t get to within striking distance. Every time they strung together a couple of buckets, somebody from North Carolina would stop the momentum, helping the Heels maintain a comfortable advantage.
Frazier nailed a three-pointer with two minutes to go that got Florida to within seven points, 67-60, but Brockway wondered whether a comeback was truly in the offing:
North Carolina made its free throws down the stretch to ice the game away.
Things don’t get much easier for Florida. The Gators meet the 11th-ranked Kansas Jayhawks a week from tonight. Injuries have hit them hard already, so it will be interesting to see how good this team is at full strength. Like Donovan said, playing all a bunch of tough games early in the season can provide big dividends by the end of the season.
North Carolina plays Iowa in its next game, with the date against the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats looming on Dec. 13. With the college basketball season being so long, it’s hard to add too much emphasis to a game in December, but beating the Wildcats would be a major statement from UNC.