CHARLOTTE — Even defending national champions get a case of the butterflies at the start of the NCAA Tournament. It happened to North Carolina on Friday during the first 16½ minutes of its opening round game against Lipscomb.
It’s not as if the Tar Heels were playing badly. They came out shooting better than 50 percent from the floor and knocked down five of their first 10 3-point attempts.
But because they missed five free throws and turned the ball over 10 times during that early stretch, leading to 13 points, they let the 15th-seeded Bisons hang around longer than they would have liked.
Coach Roy Williams’ second-seeded team finally settled down and finished the half with a flourish, then pulled away over the final 20 minutes to record an 84-66 victory at Spectrum Center. All five starters scored in double figures, led by Kenny Williams’ 18 points, as UNC advanced to a second-round matchup Sunday against Texas A&M.
“It’s a big-time game. You win or you go home,” said Theo Pinson, who came just three assists short of a triple-double with 15 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. “If you don’t have jitters, you’re not human.
“We needed to get our feet wet. Once you saw we got going, we got going and I think we responded well.”
While playing in the NCAA Tournament is old hat for Pinson and fellow upperclassmen Joel Berry and Luke Maye, it was something of a new experience for Kenny Williams — who missed last year’s postseason with a knee injury.
After picking up two early fouls, the junior guard came out firing, making six of his eight field goal attempts and his first four 3-pointers.
“I was excited all week to come to play,” Williams said. “This is my first game playing heavy minutes in the NCAA Tournament. This is what you look forward to growing up, so I was a little more excited about that.”
Lipscomb, making its first NCAA appearance, was also excited to get its chance at playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.
The Bisons gave an early glimpse of the explosive scoring potential that helped them roll up 108 points in last week’s Atlantic Sun championship game against Florida Gulf Coast by hitting four of their first eight 3-point attempts. In doing so, they jumped out ahead and maintained a lead until the 3:44 mark of the first half.
That’s when the Tar Heels’ two veteran leaders — Pinson and point guard Joel Berry — decided it was time to take charge.
“That’s just the way we play,” forward Cameron Johnson said. “We wear you down with rebounding and transition points. We made some shots and we had some turnovers that hurt us. But then we tightened up on the defensive end and rode the momentum from there.”
That momentum began with a Pinson layup in transition and a three-point play that put UNC ahead 34-33. Berry followed with a 3-pointer from the top of the circle, followed by a Sterling Manley dunk off Pinson assist.
Another Pinson basket, this time on a coast-to-coast drive, and a baseline floater by Berry finished off a 12-1 to end the half that sent the Tar Heels (26-10) into the break with an eight-point lead.
A Johnson 3-pointer on the opening possession after halftime, again off a Pinson assist, opened up UNC’s first double-digit advantage and the Bisons never seriously threatened again.
“I think late in the first half, I yelled at them in the huddle and they tried to show me how dumb I was, and they went out and played very well the last four minutes of the half,” Roy Williams said. “Then (they) just kept playing and making plays. You’ve got to win one to stay around, so we won one and I’m pleased for the guys.”
Aside from the slow start, there was plenty for Williams to be happy about.
His team shot 51.7 percent from the floor, and held Lipscomb to 35.9 percent and just 7 of 28 from 3-point range. The Tar Heels got balanced scoring, with Berry totaling 14 points, Johnson 12 and Luke Maye 10 despite a 2 for 9 shooting performance.
They got meaningful contributions off the bench from both freshman big men, with Manley totaling six points, 10 rebounds and a block in just 10 minutes, and Garrison Brooks finishing with seven points, three assists and a steal.
Most importantly, they took care of business without a lot of stress to extend their coach’s unblemished record to 28-0 in first round NCAA games and 12-0 in tournament games played in Charlotte.
“Usually we’ve played pretty well here,” Roy Williams said. “I’ve never lost to a building, but this one has been very comfortable for us. Hopefully it will last one more game.”
UNC’s second round opponent, Texas A&M, advanced with a 73-69 victory against Providence.d