North Carolina used its superior height and athleticism to pull away from Vermont in the second half Friday, winning its opening game of the 2012 NCAA tournament, 77-58.
The victory came before a crowd of 16,422, which was well short of a sellout in Greensboro Coliseum. It all seemed rather routine in the second half as the Tar Heels stretched a 12-point halftime lead into the 20s for most of the final 10 minutes despite not playing post player John Henson for the third straight game.
The Tar Heels will next play No.8 seed Creighton, which squeaked by Alabama, 58-57, in the first game of the day at Greensboro. The Bluejays like to run – they had a scoring offense in the top 10 this season – and so Sunday should be fast-paced.
UNC kept alive the streak of a No.1 seed never losing to a No.16 in NCAA tournament play and had an easier time of it than, say, Syracuse over UNC Asheville Thursday.
Still, the Tar Heels had plenty of things to work on. Their offense was stagnant for much of the first half – they led only 17-15 after a little more than 12 minutes had been played.
Up by 13, frustrated coach Roy Williams caught an errant Tar Heel pass that ended up as a turnover midway through the second half while he was sitting down. He grabbed the ball and pounded it twice onto the floor before returning it. The Tar Heels motored away from Vermont not long after that.
Tyler Zeller and James Michael McAdoo led the Tar Heels in scoring with 17 points apiece, with Zeller adding 15 rebounds. Harrison Barnes had 14 points and Kendall Marshall 11 points and 10 assists.
Henson, the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year, continues to nurse a sprained left wrist. He was in a suit and tie instead of in uniform for this one. While the Tar Heels were still far bigger than Vermont without Henson, they will need him if he can play even for awhile against a taller and more athletic Creighton team Sunday.
Zeller got the second-biggest cheer of the afternoon when he went all Henson on the Catamounts early in the second half, blocking two consecutive shots on a single possession.
The biggest cheer came on a ridiculously athletic follow dunk from McAdoo, whose slam begged for a replay and will get many thousands of those before this NCAA tournament is over. That was the only shot McAdoo made in the first half in six attempts, but he showed his athleticism repeatedly in the second 20 minutes and was roundly cheered every time he entered or left the game.