Plenty for UNC to be happy about in two wins

The Tar Heels play Auburn on Friday in a regional semifinal

Senior Kenny Williams was injured in 2017 and watched from the bench as the Tar Heels won the national championship. (Tony Dejak / AP Photo)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — North Carolina came into the NCAA Tournament playing some of the best basketball in the country. It’s a trend that continued through the opening two rounds of the Midwest Region last weekend.

Before the Tar Heels move on to Kansas City and a Sweet 16 date with Auburn, here’s a look back at what went right for the top-seeded Tar Heels in their wins against Iona and Washington.

Domination on the glass

UNC enhanced its status as the top rebounding team in the nation by dominating the glass in Columbus. It more than doubled its per-game average of plus-10.5 per game by outrebounding Iona 52-26, then building a 48-28 margin against Washington.

In the process, the Tar Heels outscored their two opponents by a combined margin of 42-7 on second-chance points.

Although those totals may have been somewhat inflated by the fact that both the Gaels and Huskies played primarily zone defenses, which put the defending team at a rebounding disadvantage, UNC didn’t waste the opportunity to make the most of its strength.

“It was in our scouting reports to take advantage of them on the offensive glass and defensively, you’ve just got to box out,” said senior forward Luke Maye, who led the way with 23 rebounds in the two games. I think it’s big Coach (Roy Williams) emphasizes rebounding first thing in practice.”

3-Point shooting

The Tar Heels came to Columbus in the throes of an extended 3-point shooting slump, having made only 30 percent of their long-range attempts (61 of 202) over their previous eight games. The shooting woes continued in the first half against Iona, when they missed 10 of 13 attempts while struggling to get into an offensive rhythm.

UNC found its range from that point on, however, going 4 of 9 in the second half against the Gaels before making 9 of 21 (42.9 percent) in the win against Washington.

Most encouraging about the improved 3-point shooting is that freshman point guard Coby White regained his touch by going 6 of 15 from distance in the two games after making just six 3-pointers in his previous five games.

“Seeing the ball go through the net a couple times really helped me,” White said after Sunday’s win at Nationwide Arena. “Once I (saw) that, I found my stroke.”

Second-half surges

UNC got better as both games went on, outscoring Iona by 20 (55-35) in the second half to rally from a five-point halftime deficit in the opening round before pulling away from Washington with a 40-26 margin in the second round.

The key to both second-half surges was defense.

After allowing Iona to make 10 of 21 3-pointers during the first 20 minutes, the Tar Heels upped their intensity and began doing a better job of contesting shots. The result was a dramatic turnaround that saw the Gaels miss 13 of their first 14 second-half treys and shoot just 32 percent overall. The Washington game followed a similar pattern, with the Huskies shooting 48.3 percent in the first half before going just 9 for 31 (29 percent) while scoring only 26 points in the second.

Senior forward Cameron Johnson chalked up the difference in defensive success to an increase in “urgency.”

According to Maye, that urgency didn’t always come from within.

“I think when Coach gets on us at halftime, it fires us up a little bit,” Maye said. “I think it makes us want to guard better for him.”

The Marvin Williams effect

In 2005, highly touted freshman Marvin Williams spent the season coming off the bench, much to the dismay of many UNC fans on the internet message boards. His role increased steadily as he improved and by the time the postseason rolled around, he was one of the most important elements in the Tar Heels’ national championship run.

Fast forward 14 years to another five-star freshman, Nassir Little, that gave indications he might be on a similar career path.

Although he showed glimpses of his potential during the regular season, Little struggled with consistency and an unfamiliar role as a reserve while those outside the program clamored for him to get more playing time.

Those fans might finally get their wish after Little exploded for 19 points against Iona and 20 against Washington while going 17 of 24 from the floor, making his only 3-point attempt and grabbing 11 rebounds.

It was a performance that could make the Tar Heels an even more difficult out as the tournament goes on.

“He adds another dynamic,” senior guard Kenny Williams said of Little. “Luke can shoot the midrange and finish over people. Garrison (Brooks) can finish over people and he’s starting to make his midrange. But Nas, with his athleticism, makes it hard to guard all three. He’s a fun player to watch.”