PORTLAND — Top-ranked North Carolina knew there would be tests during its weekend in the Pacific Northwest.
Unexpectedly, its opener was one.
Pete Nance scored 28 points, Caleb Love added 23 and No. 1 North Carolina withstood the Portland Pilots 89-81 in the opening round of the Phil Knight Invitational on Thursday at the Moda Center.
The Tar Heels (5-0) needed a late 14-3 run to finally pull away from one of the tournament’s host schools.
“I want us to consistently compete and for the first five games, it’s been there for half, it’s been there for moments, but it hasn’t been there for a full 40 minutes on both ends of the floor,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said.
Love carried them in the first half with 16 points and reached the 1,000-point mark in his career, becoming the 80th North Carolina player to reach that mark. North Carolina has the most 1,000-point scorers of any school in the country.
Nance picked up the slack after halftime with 20 points and matched his career high in scoring set last season when he was playing for Northwestern.
“All the credit to my teammates,” Nance said. “I think they were finding me in my spots when I was open. I try to work on those shots and they were going in today.”
Moses Wood led Portland (4-3) with 21 points. The Pilots didn’t let the Heels pull away until the closing minutes when Portland went cold from the field. Portland had just one field goal in the final 4 minutes — Tyler Robertson hit a 3-pointer with 50 seconds left to cut North Carolina’s lead to 84-81.
But that was the last chance for the Pilots, because RJ Davis hit a 17-footer for the Tar Heels with 26 seconds left to put the game away. Davis finished with 13 points, Armando Bacot had 11 points and 13 rebounds and Leaky Black had 11 points.
“It’s an interesting position that we’re in. People have an expectation of how it should look. And so we’re supposed to be up by 20 at halftime. We’re supposed to win every game by 30,” Davis said. “No. We’re supposed to compete and play hard and improve.”
Robertson, Portland’s leading scorer, finished with 13 points after going scoreless in the first half. Alden Applewhite added 14 off the bench.
“I think everyone is kind of disappointed that we didn’t come out with a win. We know we had chances to come out and win that game,” Robertson said. “I’ll put my hand up and say I missed some big shots at the end. But I think that everyone just sees and knows that these teams that we play in our conference the rest of the preseason that we’re going to be in every single game.”
Portland took its biggest lead at 64-59 when Applewhite scored on a pretty backdoor cut with 11:30 remaining. North Carolina scored 10 of the next 13 points, but Wood’s baseline floater pulled the Pilots even at 69-69 with 7:30 left.
Robertson’s baseline jumper and another floater by Wood pushed Portland’s lead to four, but the Tar Heels responded with their decisive run.
North Carolina: Portland was the fifth straight team from a non-Power 5 conference that the Tar Heels faced to open the season. That will change Friday with their semifinal matchup. North Carolina has just one game remaining on its schedule against a non-Power 5 team.
Portland: It was a tremendous effort by the Pilots, who faced North Carolina in the opening round of this tournament when it was played five years ago and lost 102-78. The Pilots also played without starting guard Mike Meadows due to injury.
The Tar Heels will face Iowa State in the semifinals on Friday.
The Pilots will face Villanova in a consolation game on Friday.