CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Nana Foulland and Zach Thomas scored 21 points each, and Bucknell had ninth-ranked and defending national champion North Carolina on the ropes in the second half, but the Tar Heels pulled away in the final few minutes to win 93-81 on Wednesday night at the Dean Smith Center.
Thomas recorded his third straight 20-point game to start the season, while Foulland posted his season scoring high while also notching five rebounds and three blocked shots. Stephen Brown had 11 points and eight assists, and Nate Sestina had a strong game off the bench with seven points and six rebounds in 16 minutes.
Luke Maye led five Tar Heels in double figures with 20 points to go with nine rebounds. Theo Pinson added 19 points and six assists, while Sterling Manley was a difference-maker off the bench with 16 points and 13 rebounds in 17 minutes.
North Carolina rode its offensive rebounding prowess to the national title last season, and the Tar Heels controlled the glass in this one. They finished with a 47-28 rebounding edge and parlayed 16 offensive rebounds into 16 second-chance points. UNC also gained ground at the free throw line, outscoring the Bison 25-12 from the stripe.
Bucknell trailed by as many as 16 in the first half, cut it to nine at the break, and then outscored the Tar Heels 17-9 over the first 7:20 of the second half to make it a one-point game at 59-58 on a Foulland lefty finish in the lane.
The Bison were within an arm’s length of North Carolina for much of the second half, but a Bucknell cold spurt and some strong free-throw shooting helped the Tar Heels pull away.
Foulland had three tough finishes over Carolina players in the lane, and Sestina and Avi Toomer both hit 3-pointers to help Bucknell climb within one with 12:40 to play. But a key swing happened moments later. The Bison got a stop and had a chance to take the lead, but Brown’s pull-up jumper rimmed off. Then at the other end, Brown picked up his fourth foul with 12:04 still on the clock.
Maye hit two free throws, then after the under-12 timeout he came off a screen at the top of the key and canned a 3-pointer to stretch the margin back to six. The Bison hung around with Brown on the bench, as freshman Jimmy Sotos gave them good minutes off the bench in crunch time.
Bruce Moore had a dunk off a nice feed from Thomas, and Sestina had two free throws and a drive down the lane, all keeping Bucknell within four points.
After Pinson made two free throws to make it 73-67 with 5:42 left, Bucknell had three chances at the other end but could not convert. Manley followed with a tip-in, and after a Bison offensive foul away from the ball, Maye hit a dagger 3-pointer to make it 78-67 with 4:21 left. The Tar Heels led by at least eight the rest of the way.
“I thought we played really hard tonight, and that effort is going to translate into a lot of wins this year,” said head coach Nathan Davis. “Unfortunately we ran into a really good, well-coached team that is ranked ninth in the country for a reason. They obviously hurt us on the glass. We will get back to work and get ready for our next challenge at Maryland.”
North Carolina’s largest lead in the first half was 16 points at 43-27 after a Pinson layup, but the Bison outscored the Tar Heels 14-7 over the final 4:07 of the period, including a 7-2 run to close the half.
Bucknell led 4-1 in the opening minute after buckets by Foulland and Mackenzie, and there were three lead changes before North Carolina took control with a 10-2 run, keyed by its offensive rebounding. The Bison got it back to three at 23-20 after a Mackenzie triple. The Tar Heels then outscored Bucknell 20-7 over the next five minutes to build that 16-point cushion.
Bucknell and North Carolina were meeting for the first time, and this was the first time the Bison have ever played the defending national champion.
Bucknell shot 46.0 percent for the game and went 11-for-28 from 3-point range and 12-for-18 from the foul line. UNC shot 47.0 percent overall, 6-for-17 from the arc and 25-for-33 from the foul line.
The Bison return to action on Saturday at Maryland at 8:30 p.m.