To beat Iona, UNC needed some passion
When North Carolina entered the locker room at halftime down five to No. 16 seeded Iona Friday — before their coach addressed the team — Kenny Williams was among the leaders who spoke up.
Williams told his teammates that it was time to settle in and play to their style — fast-paced, tough defense and knocking down shots. The top-seeded Tar Heels shot 33 percent from the floor in the first half, had only two fast-break points, three assists, and were 3 of 13 from behind the 3-point line.
The Gaels, meanwhile, were scorching the nets, shooting 10 of 21 from behind the 3-point line. The Tar Heels were embarrassed by their performance in the first half.
Williams said it wasn’t so much what Iona was doing but that the Tar Heels just lacked the passion they needed to win.
“If we play with effort and intensity, that’s when we’re at our best,” Williams said. “If we’re sleepwalking and just going through the motions, that’s when anybody can beat us.”
The last time North Carolina went through the motions in a game, they were beaten by 21 points at home to Louisville. That game, on Jan. 12, was the turnaround to North Carolina’s season. The Tar Heels hadn’t played like that since.
But on Friday, for one half, they did.
Eventually, the Tar Heels settled down.
They opened up the second half with a set play for UNC graduate senior Cam Johnson. It was a flare screen, Johnson said, and he was wide open for a 3. Johnson made the bucket. The play seemed to ignite the Tar Heels. At that point, their energy picked up. The crowd, which were mostly Tar Heel fans, grew louder, and Roy Williams urged his team to come on.
“Probably the thing I despise more than anything in basketball or in life is somebody trying to be cool,” coach Williams said. “And I thought in the first half we didn’t have the passion.”
The Tar Heels opened the second half on an 30-9 run in the first nine minutes to take a 16-point lead. After that, they never trailed, winning 88-73.
Johnson, who struggled in the first half, scored 16 of his 21 points in the second half.
“We needed to have just better focus, better energy and more enthusiasm in this NCAA tournament,” Johnson said. “It’s on us for not coming out with that, but I’m glad we got that out of our system, and hopefully we won’t have that again.”
The Tar Heels play No. 9 seeded Washington on Sunday at approximately 2:40 p.m. on CBS.
Roy Williams, who is now 29-0 in NCAA tournament openers, said the only player doing anything well offensively in the first half was Nassir Little. He was the only Tar Heel to shoot above 50 percent in the first half. He and freshman guard Coby White led the Tar Heels with 8 points at halftime. Little was 4 of 7 from the floor.
“Before the game started I felt like I could get what I wanted,” Little said.
He did. Little, a 6foot-6, 220-pound forward, finished with 19 points in just 17 minutes of play. He was 5 of 6 from the floor in the second half, which included a couple of highlight dunks. Little’s 19 points are the most for a UNC freshman in the NCAA tournament since Harrison Barnes scored 20 points in 2011 against Marquette in the Sweet 16.
This was the 16th time this season Little has scored in double digits. The Tar Heels are 15-1 when Little scores 10 or more points.
“I’ve got to hoop,” Little said. “That’s what the coaches are telling me. That’s what my people are telling me. I’ve got to do what I do for us to be as good as we can be.”
Little is right. There have been times this season when Little has struggled and has looked un- sure of himself. In the game against Duke on Feb. 20, he had two points and three turnovers. He played only 11 minutes.
Then there have been times this season when Little has looked as unstoppable as many people believed he would be coming out of high school as a McDonald’s AllAmerican. In the game against Florida State on Feb. 23, he scored 18 points on 6 of 11 shooting. His athleticism, and his ability to play the four position is a mismatch for most defenders.
On most nights, White and Johnson will score at least 15 points. Senior forward Luke Maye, too. Add Little’s production, and the Tar Heels could be hard to stop in the NCAA tournament.
“If he plays like he did today,” Kenny Williams said, “just aggressive — not necessarily hunting for your shot, not necessarily shooting the ball when he gets it — but if he’s just aggressive, he opens the floor for so many people.”
North Carolina's Luke Maye hugs Nassir Little during the final seconds Friday against Iona. Little had 19 points in 17 minutes of play.
North Carolina’s Nassir Little, who scored eight points in the first half, puts up a shot over Iona’s Andrija Ristanovic.