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Tar Heels' reason for optimism beyond just Brooks' big day

The (Raleigh) News & Observer logo The (Raleigh) News & Observer 1/13/2021 C.L. Brown, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Jan. 13—Senior forward Garrison Brooks broke out of a shooting slump and played his best game of the season in North Carolina's 81-75 win over Syracuse on Tuesday. That in itself was encouraging for the Tar Heels.

It wasn't just Brooks' performance that proved worthy of celebrating. It was the many contributions that made their win arguably the Heels' most complete game this season.

"We talked all season about finishing games and with our brain and the heart both and I think we did that," UNC coach Roy Williams said in his postgame remarks. "...We got some good performances from a lot of guys."

Brooks is at the top of the list after scoring a team-high 16 points and adding 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the season. Brooks said his uncle and a former AAU coach warned him that his energy had been off while he struggled shooting 7-for-21 from the floor in his last three games.

Williams re-inserted Brooks into the starting lineup after a three-game hiatus and he immediately showed why he was selected as the ACC Preseason Player of the Year. Brooks scored 14 points in the first half including eight of the Heels' first 16 points. He was also a facilitator in the middle of that Orange zone, always seeming to find the right place to distribute the ball.

"I just end up bringing energy because I saw the way Day'Ron (Sharpe) played, a lot of energy," Brooks said. "My uncle and my AAU coach got on me about not having the right energy and they say if you come out there with energy and passion, the ball will find you and you'll get easy buckets."

UNC junior wing Leaky Black had a season-high seven assists, his final one coming when Brooks hit him with a touch pass as he cut backdoor to the basket. A Syracuse defender was there to contest his layup so Black dumped it off to Armando Bacot, who scored and got fouled with 1:22 left in the game.

Black's biggest contribution was defending Syracuse guard Buddy Boeheim in the second half. Boeheim torched the Heels for 18 points in the first half including four 3-pointers. Black blocked his first shot attempt in the second half and that set the tone the rest of the way.

Boeheim missed all of his three shot attempts in the second half and finished with the same 18 points he had at halftime.

"The fact that Buddy missed a couple in the second half was helpful to us, but Leaky is one of the best defenders in the league," Williams said. "And I think that if we could keep him on the other team's best shooter all the time, it would help us."

UNC freshman guard R.J. Davis had, perhaps, the best stretch of his young career midway through the second half. He scored seven of his 12 points in a minute span. He made a 3-pointer, then stole the ball so unexpectedly from Joe Girard III, the sophomore grabbed his arm to prevent a breakaway score.

Girard was called for a Flagrant I foul and Davis made both free throws. He finished off his scoring spurt after converting another steal into a layup.

"I just wanted to be ready when my name was called and just play with confidence," Davis said. "And not worry too much about misses and turnovers or whatnot, just play basketball. That was my main thing, so I think that stretch right there basically was like showing my confidence."

UNC freshman forward Day'Ron Sharpe added his only two baskets of the second half during the run that Davis made as Carolina scored 13 straight to take a 64-56 lead. Sharpe had eight points, but a season-low four rebounds. He came through when he was needed most from the free throw line.

Sharpe entered the game shooting just 60 percent from the free throw line. He had missed his first two attempts, but with Carolina trailing by one, Sharpe made both shots of a 1-and-1 to give the Heels the lead for good 69-68 with 3:00.

"Even though we haven't been winning as pretty as some of you guys or our fans would like, I feel like just getting these games under our belt, it says a lot about this team," Black said. "We really are getting better. And I feel like we're right there. We just need to just keep striving."

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