Record-setting debut by Anthony carries Tar Heels past Notre Dame

Cole Anthony, still wearing his goggles, drives to the basket against Notre Dame guard Rex Pflueger during the first half on Wednesday
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

CHAPEL HILL — Imagine the kind of numbers Cole Anthony might have put up had he been able to see clearly.

The freshman point guard lit up Notre Dame for 34 points on Wednesday, a North Carolina record for a player in his first college game, while leading the Tar Heels to a 76-65 win against Notre Dame in the season opener for both teams.

But it wasn’t until he ditched the prescription goggles he started the game wearing that he began to show why he’s being touted as a possible No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft next summer.

“I don’t know. I think it was messing up my depth perception, because when I took those off something clicked,” Anthony said, who wears glasses off the court and admits to not seeing “really well” without them.

“I’d been practicing with them and I thought it was OK. But after tonight I might have to retire those.”

That might not be a bad idea. 

After making only two of his first six field-goal attempts to start the game, the Tar Heels’ newest star rarely missed. He finished by going 12 of 24 with six 3-pointers — adding 11 rebounds and five assists — on his way to breaking Rashad McCants’ record of 28 points in his UNC debut in 2002.

He was especially good when the Tar Heels needed it most. With Notre Dame up by three at 44-41 with just under 14 minutes remaining, Anthony scored seven straight points to put his team back on top. Another eight-point spurt later in the half extended the lead to a high of 16 at 73-57.

At that point, all that was missing were the superlatives.

And there were plenty of those to go around once the game was over.

“Just a great player and a great leader,” freshman teammate Armando Bacot said. “After the Winston-Salem (exhibition) game he was here an hour after the game still shooting. He knew he wanted to come out and play a big game and impress all the fans. And that’s what he did.”

“Cole is just a really good player,” added junior Garrison Brooks, the only other UNC player beside Anthony to score in double figures. He had 10 points to go along with nine rebounds and three blocked shots.

“His confidence is through the roof. It’s just unexplainable,” Brooks added. “I wouldn’t expect 34 out of the game, but it was really good. I wasn’t surprised.”

Neither was coach Roy Williams. Only in his estimation, confidence had nothing to do with Anthony’s dominant performance in his first college game.

“No, it’s his ability, his toughness,” Williams said. “I’m confident as a you-know-what and I can’t do the crap he does. His toughness is something I’ve appreciated since the first time I watched him play as a high school freshman.”

Williams said that Anthony is the kind of player that wants to win at everything, whether it’s a preseason conditioning test or a game against an ACC opponent.

He’s so competitive that Williams is worried that he’ll have to dial his star down to help him make it through the entire season without burning out.

“Cole carried us tonight,” he said. “We cannot depend on him to be the only guy that’s tough enough to get a rebound, tough enough to make a shot.”

When told by his coach earlier in the day that he’d try to find him a few minutes to rest in each half, Anthony responded to Williams by saying he was ready to play 40 minutes if necessary.

He almost did, going a shade over 37.

During the three minutes he was on the bench late in the first half, the Irish outscored the Tar Heels 12-2. Once he got on his roll in the second half, his play helped get others involved. That includes junior Andrew Platek, who made a pair of big 3-pointers while finishing with eight points, four rebounds and two assists in an expanded role made necessary by a preseason injury to projected starter Brandon Robinson.

“He makes us play so much better,” Platek said. “I knew he was going to find me on that (second-half) three. That’s the kind of player he is. He’s always making the right play. That’s why I love playing with him.”

As for Anthony, he just loves playing.

While others were still gushing over his debut performance, he was ready to put it behind him and get back out on the court to do it again.

Minus the goggles, of course.

“It’s cool,” he said. “I’m going to be happy about it for a little bit tonight, give myself a pat on the back. But we have practice tomorrow. We’ve got to lock back in. We’ve got a game (at UNCW) on Friday.”