COLUMBUS, Ohio — The North Carolina basketball team has higher goals than simply advancing to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. But as the top-seeded Tar Heels learned so painfully a year ago, you can’t get to the Final Four or win a national championship without first getting out of the opening weekend.
It’s a reality that’s weighed heavily on Luke Maye and his teammates since that disappointing second-round loss to Texas A&M last March.
Sunday, they were finally able to put the past behind them and take their first major step forward in this year’s tournament with a precision-like 81-59 beatdown of No. 9 Washington at Nationwide Arena.
Maye carved up the Huskies’ zone defense by scoring 20 points and adding 14 rebounds while freshman Nassir Little had a second straight breakout performance to earn UNC a date with fourth-seeded Auburn in the Midwest Region semifinals next Friday in Kansas City.
“We talked about it all summer,” Maye said of last year’s early exit. “To lose that way and to have Joel (Berry) and Theo (Pinson) go out like that was really hard, especially for the guys who felt like it was on us. I feel like it’s just a testament to how hard we worked to get back to this spot.”
The Tar Heels (29-6) left little doubt about their focus right from the jump.
On one end of the floor, their crisp ball movement allowed them to consistently find the dead spots in the middle of the Washington zone, where Maye and Garrison Brooks were able to do damage from close range before Coby White and Cameron Johnson began connecting from 3-point range.
At the other, UNC used Kenny Williams’ defensive pressure on Pac-12 Player of the Year Jaylen Nowell and a domination of the boards to build a 41-33 halftime lead that would have been even bigger had it not been for 10 first-half turnovers and a bloody mouth that sent Brooks to the locker room for the last 7½ minutes.
Brooks was hit in the face by the Huskies’ Noel Dickerson — with no call — resulting in a broken tooth, a loose tooth and several stitches in his mouth.
But he returned in the second half and picked up right where he left off. Williams also had an injury scare when he came up lame after stealing the ball on the opening possession of the second half.
The senior guard limped off the court and went straight to the locker room with what was described as a strained left hamstring. Like Brooks, he also returned to finish the game.
“Garrison will have to go see the dentist before we leave town to get two teeth straightened out,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “Kenny came back and tried to guard like crazy when we got him in there. I love our toughness, love the edge that our bench gave us today and I just love the way we kept competing.”
That bench contribution was especially significant in the second half. And as was the case with the Tar Heels’ opening-round win against Iona two nights earlier, the bulk of it was provided by Little.
Coming off an impressive 19-point performance against the Gaels, the explosive young wing scored 15 of his 20 points and grabbed five of his seven rebounds during the final 20 minutes on Sunday. At one point midway through the period, Little scored 11 straight UNC points and 13 of his team’s 15 points while also blocking a shot to help turn an already expanding 61-47 lead into an insurmountable 72-50 cushion.
“He’s a fun player to watch because you never know what you’re going to get out of him,” Kenny Williams said of Little.
“I always have the highest confidence in myself, always believing in myself,” Little added. “Those kind of runs just get you going. It’s a great feeling. You feel like no one can guard you.”
Little’s sudden offensive emergence could be a major factor as the Tar Heels advance in the tournament, especially when combined with all the other weapons that were on full display against the 27-9 Huskies.
White and Johnson combined to go 7 for 15 from 3-point range while scoring 17 and 13 points, respectively. Nowell was held to 12 points while the UNC defense limited Washington just 29 percent shooting in the second half.
On the glass, where the Tar Heels expected to have an edge against the nation’s 289th-ranked rebounding, they did even better than expected by running up a lopsided 48-24 advantage and outscoring the Huskies 17-4 on second-chance points.
“Coach emphasizes rebounding from the first time in practice,” Maye said. “I try to pride myself in working hard and trying to get as many offensive rebounds as I can.
“I think Garrison’s done a good job and so has Cam and Naz. It’s great to see how much they’ve grown offensive and defensively, rebounding-wise.”
And now that they’ve cleared the second-round NCAA hurdle that tripped them up last year, they’ll have a chance to grow just a little bit more.
“To be able to play and play this deep into the tournament, it does mean a lot,” Kenny Williams said. “But at the same time, we’re not done. We still have work to do. We’re going to try to win a couple more so we can go to the Final Four.