PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Time and again, the ball went up on the backboard or bounced off the rim only to end up in the hands of North Carolina players who bulled their way through traffic to get to it.
The sixth-ranked Tar Heels may not have the offensive firepower they had last season, but that emphasis on rebounding remains unwavering.
Freshman Armando Bacot finished with 12 points and a season-high 15 rebounds to help UNC overwhelm Alabama on the glass and win 76-67 in Wednesday’s first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis.
The Tar Heels (5-0) entered as the nation’s No. 1 team in rebounding margin. They certainly won’t hurt that average with this performance: They nearly doubled the Crimson Tide to finish with a 60-31 edge on the glass, with those 60 rebounds setting an Atlantis tournament record.
“That’s just been his emphasis since day one,” Bacot said of coach Roy Williams. “I feel like every game we’re getting better and better at crashing the offensive glass. ... I think we’re continuing to get better and you’ll see the offensive rebounds and defensive rebounds keep going up every game.”
UNC had as many offensive rebounds (23) as Alabama had defensive rebounds and finished with 23 second-chance points.
First-year Alabama coach Nate Oats put it bluntly: “The defensive rebounding just destroyed us.”
“Most games you give (players) a goal: ‘We want to be plus-10, plus-15,’” Oats said. “I just told them we want to win the rebounding battle by one. ... We just struggled with them. I knew it was going to be an issue.”
The Tar Heels didn’t shoot the ball particularly well (40.8%) while freshman point guard Cole Anthony didn’t have a huge offensive game. He finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and six assists — including a perfect alley-oop inbounds pass that Garrison Brooks hammered down with 3:23 left as part of his 20 points to match a career high.
John Petty Jr. scored 23 points with seven 3-pointers for the Crimson Tide (2-3), though 15 points and five of those 3s came in the first half. Preseason all-Southeastern Conference pick Kira Lewis Jr. added 20 points, but Alabama shot just 38% for the game.
Leaky Black finished with career highs of nine points and nine rebounds for the Tar Heels, who also got a career-high 12 points from senior Brandon Robinson in his season debut. Robinson had been sidelined since he sprained an ankle during an exhibition game.
Alabama: The Crimson Tide had been good on the glass coming in despite lacking a lot of size, ranking 19th nationally in rebounding margin before failing to keep up with the Tar Heels. They also leaned on Petty and Lewis to carry the offense as the only Alabama players to reach double figures.
“Our guys have got to get the mentality right,” Oats said. “We’re going to make mistakes. I thought some guys kind of dropped their head. You’re going to get a tough call here or there. ... We’ve just got to keep our heads and keep playing and keep the effort up.”
UNC: The Tar Heels have been looking for a reliable secondary scorer behind Anthony, who came in averaging better than 22 points. Robinson could help with his experience as a senior, while Black had some good moments as an all-around playmaker who saw work in relief of Anthony.
“I think we played collectively as a team better,” Robinson said, adding: “We didn’t stand around and depend on Cole just to take a late shot to save us, so I think that was a good thing.”
The 6-foot-10 Bacot posted a third straight double-double, joining Mike O’Koren (1976-77) and Antawn Jamison (1995-96) as the only UNC freshmen to do so.
UNC’s 60 rebounds broke the previous record of 57 set by Butler in November 2014 against UNC in the Tar Heels’ last Atlantis appearance.
Williams earned his 876th career win, moving him into a tie for fifth on the all-time men’s list with late Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp. The next name ahead is a familiar one: it’s Dean Smith, Williams’ late mentor and a Hall of Famer who won 879 games with the Tar Heels.
Alabama: The Crimson Tide moved to the losers’ bracket for Thursday’s matchup with Iowa State, which lost to Michigan earlier Wednesday.
UNC: The Tar Heels advanced to the winners’ bracket for Thursday’s matchup with Michigan, which beat Iowa State earlier Wednesday.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aaronbeardap