Anthony gets scoring help as injury-riddled Tar Heels best UNCW

UNC’s Garrison Brooks battles for the ball with UNC Wilmington ‘s John Bowen during Friday’s game (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

WILMINGTON — The North Carolina basketball team got more of its members involved in the scoring on Friday than it did in its opening game two nights earlier.

The problem is, the Tar Heels ended the night at UNC Wilmington with one fewer player than it started. 

And that has coach Roy Williams more than just a little concerned despite his team’s second straight win to begin the season.

Freshman point guard Cole Anthony followed up his impressive debut on Wednesday with 20 points and 10 rebounds while getting scoring help from junior Garrison Brooks and graduate transfer Justin Pierce, who each finished with 18 points while also posting double-doubles.

But the joy of a 78-62 victory on a festive night at Trask Coliseum — against a Seahawks team coached by former UNC assistant C.B. McGrath — was dampened for Williams and his already injury-depleted team by the loss of another key player.

Freshman big man Armando Bacot left the game with an apparent concussion after less than three minutes of action, leaving the Tar Heels with only seven scholarship players available for the rest of the game.

If not longer.

“I think it is going to have to be something we deal with all season and it concerns us a great deal,” said Williams, who was already without senior captain Brandon Robinson and junior big man Sterling Manley, along with freshmen Anthony Harris and Jeremiah Francis because of injuries before Bacot went down.

“But they don’t let you go out and draft, and we can’t take anybody off the waiver list. That’s who we have. Seven and eight … I’ve always like to play nine or 10. We’d like to get some of those other guys back.”

In the meantime, the Tar Heels need to get as much production as possible from others beside their newest star.

That didn’t happen in Wednesday’s opener when Anthony almost singlehandedly carried the team by scoring 34 points in his first college game. The distribution was better this time with Pierce doing most of his damage from long range — going 4 of 7 from 3-point range — and Brooks scoring from around the rim.

For Pierce, the big game wasn’t his first on UNCW’s home floor. As a sophomore in 2018, he scored 23 points against the Seahawks while playing for his former school, William & Mary.

“I always loved playing here,” said Pierce, who surpassed the 1,000-point mark for his college career in the game. “The crowd was into it and my teammates got me a bunch of open looks. I was a little confident going into the game knowing I was familiar with this arena from having played here for three years.”

Pierce also finished with a career-high 12 rebounds, the result of a conscious effort to make up for the loss of Bacot so early in the game. Brooks also did his part by recording his first career double-double.

“I was just doing what coach says for me to do every day and working hard as I possibly can,” Brooks, who also had 12 rebounds, said. “When Armando went out, I think I had to step up a little more. That’s fine. It just made me play a little harder.”

As much of a step forward as the contributions of Pierce and Brooks were for the Tar Heels, it still wasn’t good enough for a Hall of Fame coach who frequently showed his frustration throughout a game in which his team didn’t shoot well from either the floor (37.5%) or the line (53.3%), played some spotty defense and allowed a much smaller UNCW team to grab 48 rebounds.

Jaylen Simms and Shykeim Phillips led the Seahawks (1-1) with 12 points each.

Between them, the other four Tar Heels that saw meaningful playing time beside Anthony, Pierce and Brooks on Friday combined for just 22 points and were 8 for 21 from the floor.

“We’ve got to get more out of Andrew (Platek), we’ve got to get more out of Christian (Keeling), we’ve got to get more out of Leaky (Black),” Williams said. “Needless to say we’d like (Bacot) to play more than two minutes, 41 seconds. We’re pretty thin as it is.”

The good news for UNC is that it now has an entire week off before playing again — at home against Gardner-Webb — in hopes of getting at least some of its walking wounded back.

And that despite all its issues, it’s still 2-0 for the new season.

“I’m super proud of the guys,” said Anthony, who became the first UNC freshman ever to have at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in his first two career games. “There were a bunch of negatives to this game, but we’re going to take away the positives, too, and enjoy the win.”