To beat Iona, UNC needed some pas­sion

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY JONATHAN M. ALEXAN­DER jalexan­[email protected]­sob­server.com

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.”

PAUL VERNON AP

North Carolina's Luke Maye hugs Nas­sir Lit­tle dur­ing the fi­nal sec­onds Fri­day against Iona. Lit­tle had 19 points in 17 min­utes of play.

ROBERT WILLETT rwil­[email protected]­sob­server.com

North Carolina’s Nas­sir Lit­tle, who scored eight points in the first half, puts up a shot over Iona’s An­drija Ris­tanovic.

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