COLUMBUS, Ohio — It wasn’t one of coach Roy Williams’ more fiery halftime speeches. But then, it didn’t need to be.
Down by five to Iona after a lifeless opening 20 minutes, Williams’ players already knew what they needed to do to avoid becoming the second No. 1 seed — and second from the ACC in as many years — to lose to a 16 seed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“He just said that’s not the way we play. We need to pick it up,” graduate forward Cameron Johnson said. “And we received that message loud and clear.”
Johnson’s 3-pointer nine seconds into the second half got the ball rolling and the Tar Heels took off from there, returning to character on the way to an 88-73 win at Nationwide Arena that advances them into a second round Midwest Region matchup with Washington on Sunday.
Although UNC eventually exploited its advantages in size and quickness to dominate the Gaels on the boards and in transition, it didn’t make things easy on itself during a first half in which virtually everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.
Iona (17-16) made 10 of 21 3-pointers and converted the Tar Heels’ five turnovers into seven points. On the other end of the court, UNC tried to match the Gaels from the perimeter instead of attacking the rim and pounding it inside.
The result was a 38-33 deficit that would have been even worse had it not been for freshman Nassir Little, who came off the bench to score eight points and grab three rebounds in eight minutes of action.
“I didn’t think they thought it was going to be easy. I just don’t think we had the passion to play, especially on the defensive end when they’re spreading you,” Williams said of his team’s first-half effort. “It was a total breakdown on the defensive end and then they’re making threes and we started looking at the score, and I think perhaps we got a little tight.”
That tightness began to ease almost as soon as the Tar Heels returned to the court for the second half when Johnson hit his early 3-pointer, then fed Luke Maye for a short jumper that tied the score.
After a 3-point answer by Rickey McGill that briefly put Iona back on top — his fifth of the game to that point without a miss — Johnson and Maye combined for the next six points. UNC (28-6) went on to outscore the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion Gaels 30-9 over the first 8½ minutes of the half to effectively put the game away.
“We came out and tied it up pretty quick,” said Johnson, who led the Tar Heels with 21 points. “It gave us momentum and we rolled that way for the majority of the half. The first one fell. Then Luke came down, got an easy basket and the stops started to come.”
And they came in bunches.
The Gaels finished the game with 15 3-pointers, the most ever against UNC in an NCAA tournament half game. And McGill hit on seven of them to lead all scorers with 26 points. But after shooting nearly 50 percent from beyond the arc in the first half, the Gaels Cam back to reality in the second by making only one of their first 14 attempts after the intermission.
“You hope a team that hits 10 of their first 21 threes kind of cools off,” Johnson said. “They did that a little bit and we took advantage.”
UNC outrebounded Iona 52-26. Its 20 offensive rebounds led to 25 second-chance points.
Little finished with 19 points, his best scoring effort since scoring 23 against Virginia Tech on Jan. 21. Maye had 16 points and nine rebounds while Coby White and Garrison Brooks had 10 points each as UNC followed a pattern set earlier in the day by its fellow ACC No. 1 seeds Duke and Virginia by rallying from an early deficit to survive and advance.
At this point of the season, senior guard Kenny Williams said, that’s really the only thing that matters.
“If we come out sluggish like we did in the first half, a team down the road will very well beat us by 25,” he said. “But at the same time, you take the win however you can get it and keep it trucking.”
So does that mean the Tar Heels have gotten their bad game out of their system?
“I certainly hope so,” Kenny Williams said. “Of course we want to say that, but we still have to come out and play on Sunday.”