CHAPEL HILL — Seniors Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams might be the veteran foundation of the North Carolina basketball team. But even they realize that the Tar Heels are only going to go as far this season as their star freshmen.
That’s why Williams made it a point to embrace rookies Coby White and Nassir Little as they left the court following Monday’s 103-82 drubbing of Virginia Tech.
“I was just happy for them, that’s all that was,” Williams said after watching his two young teammates spark a game-changing first half run and score 50 points between them in their best collective performance to date.
“To see them step up and combine for 50 points … I can’t explain to you how big that is. That’s huge to have the two young guys do that in a game like this. That was just pure joy and I was celebrating with them.”
There was plenty to celebrate for the 11th-ranked Tar Heels against an ACC rival ranked one notch ahead of them in the new national poll announced earlier in the day.
Point guard White became the first UNC player since Joseph Forte against Duke in 2001 to lead the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals in the same game — finishing with 27 points, seven boards, six assists and four steals.
Little, a top five recruit who has been slower to find his niche, posted a career-high 23 points that included a 7 for 7 performance from the free throw line.
It marked the third straight game in which the athletic 6-foot-6 wing scored in double figures. It was also the first time this season in which he and White both hit for 20 or more at the same time.
Combined with a productive seven-minute stretch from classmate Leaky Black, coach Roy Williams is hopeful that the youngsters have reached the point in the season in which freshmen no longer play like freshmen.
“We’re 15-4 (5-1 ACC), so that’s 19 games. That’s quite a few opportunities to go and play,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “You shouldn’t still be a freshman.
“I think Coby has done some really good things for us this year. Nassir has been amazing the last three games. I think all three of our freshmen are going to be very good players and I think that they’ll continue to get better and better.”
They were all instrumental in helping light the spark that finally got UNC going after an ominous start Monday.
The Tar Heels missed 11 of its first 12 3-point attempts to start the game while the Hokies hit eight of their first 11 shots overall to jump out to a 22-13 lead after the first 7½ minutes. It was a start reminiscent of a 21-point home loss to Louisville three games ago.
Only this time instead of rolling over, UNC dug in its heels and began battling back.
The rally started gradually with Little converting a three-point play. It began picking up steam after a Little steal and dunk, and a tough drive to the hoop by White and was aided by foul trouble that sent Tech starters Justin Robinson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker on the bench with three fouls. It finally hit full stride moments later, when with Tech holding onto a 29-25 lead with 5:17 left in the half, White hit a pair of 3-pointers to spark a 20-0 Tar Heel run that broke the game open.
Fourteen of those 20 points were scored by the freshman trio of White, Little and Black.
“I didn’t think we had the intensity and focus we needed,” Little said. “My mindset coming in (off the bench) was ‘I’m going to lift us up.’ I think I brought us that extra fire that we needed.”
UNC recovered from its early shooting woes to make 14 of its next 19 3-pointers. It’s a turnaround that coincided with an increase in energy on the defensive end that helped hold the Hokies (15-3, 4-2) scoreless for nearly six minutes during the decisive late first half stretch.
“I really do believe that our defense got better when we started shooting the ball in the basket,” Roy Williams said.
As far as White is concerned, the opposite was the case.
“We picked up defensive and got a lot of steals and clock violations,” he said. “I think our energy on the defensive end made our offense.”
Whichever it was, it carried over into a second half in which the Tar Heels shot 60.6 percent from the floor and continued to pull away — widening the lead to as many as 27 points in their most encouraging performance since beating then-No. 3 Gonzaga on Dec. 15.
In addition to the freshmen, Maye (14 points), sophomore center Garrison Brooks (12) and Kenny Williams (10) also contributed double-figure scoring for UNC.
“I still don’t think we’re where we want to be, because our team is not as consistent as we want to be right now,” Black said. “Step by step, we’re getting there.”