SportsPulse: While Liberty and UC Irvine busted brackets around the country, Duke and Zion Williamson aced their first tournament test. USA TODAY’s Trysta Krick recaps day 2 and looks ahead to Saturday’s action.
COLUMBUS, Ohio – There was never any panic.
Embarrassment, maybe. Frustration, definitely.
But North Carolina knew it was the better team, a No. 1 seed for a reason. It just needed to show it.
“There was actually no yelling, contrary to what you might believe,” Kenny Williams said of North Carolina’s five-point halftime deficit against 16th-seeded Iona, a team that was 7-15 just six weeks ago.
“(Coach) said we were out there sleeping and we weren’t giving each other anything,” Williams said. “We got the message. We came out in the second half and we fixed it.”
After looking for the first 20 minutes like it might join last year’s Virginia team as the only No. 1s to fall to a 16th seed, North Carolina showed in the last 20 why it has what it takes to win the national title. It hammered Iona inside, finishing with a 48-10 advantage in the paint and a 25-3 edge in second-chance points on its way to a 88-73 win.
Oh, it shut down the Gaels’ three-point wizardry, too. After making 10 — 10! — three-pointers in the first half, Iona was 5-of-20 from long range in the second half. The 15 were still the most an opponent has made against North Carolina in an NCAA tournament game.
“The second half, the big emphasis was getting the ball in the middle because it broke them down,” said Cameron Johnson, who made a big three just 12 seconds into the second half to shift momentum.
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Nassir Little and Garrison Brooks both came up big in the second half, combining for 19 points. Little scored nine of those during a a nearly six-minute run when North Carolina turned a comfortable lead into a blowout.
“I felt like early on we was taking too many outside shots,” Little said. “And before the game, coach and all the coaching staff was telling me to be aggressive and get easy buckets on the inside and play inside-out. I think by doing that, it opened up a lot of things in the second half.”
And moved Carolina into the second round, where everyone expected the Tar Heels would be. North Carolina plays Washington, which beat Utah State earlier Friday, on Sunday afternoon.
Roy Williams has never lost a first-round game, at either Kansas or North Carolina. And until last year, no No. 1 seed had ever lost to a 16.
But Maryland-Baltimore County’s upset of Virginia has changed everything. Once the world knows something is actually possible, everyone is going to believe they can do it, too.
Look at the other games Friday involving the No. 1 seed. Duke got off to a slow start against North Dakota State. Virginia got a scare from Gardner-Webb.
“I don’t think that they felt like they were invincible,” Roy Williams said of his team. “… And I don’t think that they thought it was going to be easy. I just don’t think we had the passion to play.”
The Tar Heels still have some things to fix if they’re going to make an extended run in the tournament. Coby White, who has been fantastic all season, the best freshman not named Zion Williamson, was 4-of-14, including 2-of-8 from three-point range.
When he launched one late in the second half that was clearly off the mark, Roy Williams turned away, a grimace on his face.
By then, however, the crisis had been averted and a victory was secure.
“For a couple moments there, we were concerned about the score more so than how we were playing,” Roy Williams said. “So I just tried to get us to focus on playing better, playing better and doing what we’ve done all year long.”
That’s winning. At this time of year, that’s the only thing that matters.