PORTLAND, Ore. — North Carolina barely avoided experiencing all of the Thanksgiving indigestion. The top-ranked Tar Heels survived what was supposed to be their Phil Knight Invitational appetizer, and turned back Portland 89-81 in the tournament opener Thursday at the Moda Center.
Pete Nance’s 28 points and Caleb Love’s 23 points helped UNC escape an upset that would’ve sent a shock across the college basketball world, while jolting the tournament bracket here that features four ranked teams, headlined by No. 1 North Carolina.
Nance, the Northwestern graduate transfer, tied his career high in scoring. Love connected on 10-for-15 shooting from the field. RJ Davis added 13 points and five assists, and Armando Bacot supplied 11 points and 13 rebounds.
The Tar Heels (5-0) arrived for this 10 am tip-off on West Coast time cast as a 15-point favorite by the oddsmakers, and yet trailed Portland with 4½ minutes left and had to navigate game pressure down the stretch. Black’s corner 3-pointer off Davis’ pass put UNC ahead to stay at 76-75, and the Tar Heels did enough during crunch time. Bacot’s dunk off a nifty feed from the driving Leaky Black gave UNC a 79-76 lead with 3:04 remaining. Later, Davis drilled a jumper over Portland’s Jack Perry for an 86-81 edge with about 25 seconds left, essentially the clincher.
Moses Wood’s 21 points, Alden Applewhite’s career-best 14 points, and Tyler Robertson’s 13 points and seven assists paced Portland (4-3) of the West Coast Conference. The upset-minded Pilots connected on 10 of their first 20 launches from 3-point range, but went 2-for-12 beyond the arc the rest of the way.
North Carolina led Portland 40-38 at halftime Thursday. The Tar Heels had hit six 3-pointers by that juncture. Love had scored 16 first-half points and Nance had chipped in eight points.
Both teams shot better than 52 percent from the field in the first half. UNC managed to hold Robertson, Portland’s top scorer on the season, without a point during the first half. But Wood knocked down four 3s and scored 13 points in the first half, and the Pilots, if there had been doubts, certainty had gained the confidence they could play with the top-ranked Tar Heels.
Then coming out of halftime, Portland’s Kristian Sjolund banked in a 3-pointer, a brick from straight on that smacked in off the backboard, and Portland led 41-40 to start the second half.
UNC shuffles lineup combos
UNC coach Hubert Davis continued experimenting with lineup combinations Thursday, and the group of Seth Trimble, D’Marco Dunn, Puff Johnson, Love and Bacot proved a bit of a strange mix on the floor together as Portland erased North Carolina’s early 18-8 lead with a 10-0 run.
Another somewhat clunky lineup later in the first half, this time without the inside presence of Bacot, contained Nance, Johnson, Dunn, Black and RJ Davis.
Caleb Love hits 1,000
The junior guard Love needed three points to become the 80th player in UNC basketball history to score 1,000 career points, and he got there quickly Thursday. He sank a pull-up jumper and turned a steal into a transition dunk before the game was 3.5 minutes old.
The Tar Heels own the NCAA record with 80 players to have reached the 1,000-point plateau. Bacot hits the milestone in January of last season against NC State. Louisville is second all-time in NCAA history with 69 players to have scored 1,000 career points.
Next on the schedule
The Tar Heels improved to 8-1 all-time in the state of Oregon, including 2-1 at the Moda Center. Now, the main courses arrive. UNC meets Iowa State (which beat Villanova) on Friday at Veterans Memorial Coliseum (5:30 pm ET), in what will be the Tar Heels’ first matchup against a power conference opponent this season.
The Tar Heels are 3-1 all-time against Iowa State.