Cameron Johnson hit for 21 points, while Nassir Little scored 19 points in his NCAA Tournament debut as top-seeded North Carolina picked it up in the second half in an 88-73 victory against Iona in a Midwest Region game Friday night at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
It was a huge turnaround after a miserable first half of shooting for the Tar Heels, who have never lost an NCAA Tournament first-round game under coach Roy Williams.
North Carolina (28-6) meets ninth-seeded Washington, a 78-61 winner against Utah State earlier Friday, in Sunday's second-round game.
Little, a reserve forward, shot 9-for-13 from the field. He was the only player to score off the North Carolina bench until the game's final 20 seconds.
Luke Maye poured in 16 points while Coby White and Garrison Brooks each chipped in 10 points for the Tar Heels, who held a 52-26 rebounding advantage.
Rickey McGill made seven 3-point baskets and racked up 26 points for Iona (17-16), while Asante Gist added 17 points, Andrija Ristanovic contributed 11 points and E.J. Crawford had 10 points. The Gaels, who had a 10-game winning streak snapped, were in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth year in a row.
The Tar Heels, who lost in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinals a week earlier to Duke, haven't lost consecutive games this season.
North Carolina began the second half on a 15-5 run.
Iona led 38-33 at halftime, trying to become the second No. 16 seed to knock off a top seed in the tournament's history following last March's stunner when Maryland-Baltimore County upended Virginia.
Iona broke a 27-all tie with eight straight points.
White and Little, both freshmen, combined for 16 first-half points, accounting for nearly half of North Carolina's scoring by that juncture. The Tar Heels shot 32.5 percent from the field in the half.
North Carolina was 4-5 in the previous nine games this season in which it trailed at halftime.
--Field Level Media