On the same day top-seeded Virginia survived an early scare from a No. 16 seed, an ACC rival suffered one of its own.
Iona opened up a 38-33 halftime lead over UNC during Friday’s late NCAA tournament session behind hot shooting that saw the Gaels hit 10 of their first 20 3-point attempts.
But as Virginia did against Gardner-Webb, North Carolina found its footing in the second half to pull away for an 88-73 win. What started as a scare turned into a double-digit win for the Tar Heels as they seek their second national title in three years.
So why the slow start? UNC leans heavily on freshman point guard Coby White, who made his first NCAA tournament appearance and struggled to 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting.
But Carolina has plenty of veteran experience on the team, including seniors Luke Maye and Kenny Williams, who played key roles on UNC’s 2017 national championship team. They’ve been here before.
The first-half deficit can largely be attributed to the early hot shooting from Iona and UNC’s inability to stop it. The Gaels eventually cooled off, hitting 5-of-20 three-pointers to finish the game.
“All of the sudden we started guarding better,” UNC head coach Roy Williams told CBS said of Carolina’s second-half adjustment. “They missed some shots too, but I thought we guarded them a lot better, didn’t give them wide-open threes. And then we started moving better on the offensive end and made baskets.”
Williams improves to 29-0 in his carer in first-round NCAA tournament games.
Big game from Little
While it was far from a vintage North Carolina performance, there was a bright spot for the Tar Heels. Freshman Nassir Little had a big game off the bench, finishing with 19 points and four rebounds while hitting 9-of-13 shots.
He was joined by Cam Johnson, who logged 21 points and 7 rebounds while hitting 4-of-8 three-pointers in leading the Tar Heels. Maye finished with 16 points and nine rebounds.
Little, a five-star recruit, was the McDonald’s All-American Game MVP and is a projected lottery pick. But he has struggled to find his footing at UNC while coming off the bench. If he breaks out to meet his potential in the NCAA tournament, UNC will prove a difficult out.
But that’s only if the Tar Heels play better than they did in a sluggish first half on Friday.
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