COLUMBUS, Ohio — For all the senior experience on the North Carolina basketball team, including two starters with national championship rings to their credit, it took a freshman to realize what needed to be done to get the Tar Heels going in their NCAA Tournament opener.
And it wasn’t the one that’s done most of the heavy lifting this season.
Nassir Little came off the bench to provide a badly needed spark Friday, igniting his top-seeded team to a come-from-behind 88-73 win against 16th-seeded Iona at Nationwide Arena.
The former-five star recruit, who has been overshadowed by his rookie classmate Coby White, scored six of his 19 points during a first-half spurt that finally gave the Tar Heels some life after a listless start. He did it by remembering a game plan virtually everyone else on the court seemed to forget while watching the Gaels build as much as an eight-point lead.
“I felt like early on, we were taking too many outside shots,” Little said. “Before the game, Coach (Roy Williams) and all the staff was telling me to be aggressive and get easy buckets on the inside and play inside-out. I think by doing that, I opened up a lot of things in the second half.”
Little didn’t get off to a strong start upon coming into his first NCAA Tournament game, committing two quick fouls. But he quickly gained his composure and began to assert himself.
The 6-foot-6 wing said he realized before the game ever started that he could exploit his size against the smaller Gaels. With his team struggling to score and settling for too many 3-point jumpers, he did just that — scoring on a layup, a short jumper in the lane and a tip-in of a Cameron Johnson miss on consecutive possessions to tie the score at 28.
“I think it was more him recognizing it and him starting to take advantage of it,” senior teammate Kenny Williams said. “We were just playing basketball, but once he recognized that ‘OK, I can get what I want,’ we still played the same game. We just found him open a lot of times and he finished the plays.”
Although Iona was able to regain the lead and go into halftime ahead 38-33, Little’s assertiveness set an example Williams and his fellow veterans began to follow once they returned for the second half.
They shared the ball, recording 12 assists over the final 20 minutes after managing just four in the opening 20. They took only nine more 3-pointers and shot a 62.9 percent from the floor for the remainder of the game while cooling off their once-hot opponent with a much more conscientious defensive effort.
In doing so, UNC outscored Iona 55-35 in the second half to finally put the Gaels away.
“We knew they weren’t the strongest team in transition,” Little said. “I felt early on we weren’t getting enough stops to take advantage of that. Once we picked it up defensively, we got easy buckets in transition.
“Guys were being more aggressive taking it to the basket, putting pressure on their guys, getting people in foul trouble. That’s how we were able to get away.”
Little did his part by going 9 of 13 from the floor in his productive 17 minutes of action.
His 19 points were the most he’s scored since notching a career-high 21 against Virginia Tech on Jan. 21. They were also the most scored by a UNC freshman in his first NCAA Tournament game since Harrison Barnes hit for 24 against LIU in 2011.
“He’s a bull. He’s strong,” Johnson said of Little. “And he can move like that. He can run, jump and he kind of imposed his will on them. That eight points he had in the first half was just huge.”