UNC Basketball: Tar Heels outlast Iona Gaels in NCAA Round of 64

No. 1 seed UNC Basketball overcame a rough first half on Friday to send the No. 16 Iona Gaels packing, 88–73.

Sleepwalking is generally viewed as a rather precarious act for anyone to partake in, considering the array of unfortunate consequences that come with it. Sometimes you bump into your surroundings. Sometimes you trip and fall over. Sometimes you wander around and get lost.

And sometimes you allow a small mid-major college from New York to drain 10-of-21 perimeter attempts in the first half of the NCAA Tournament’s opening round, putting you down 38-33 by halftime.

See, sleepwalking can be dangerous, especially when high-stakes games are at play.

No. 1 UNC didn’t get the memo, at least not to start the game.

Led by upperclassman Rickey McGill, a steady stream of three-point attempts from the entirety of the Iona’s roster — truly a joint effort, with the six major rotation players all hoisting up at least three three-point attempts by the end of the game — kept the Gaels in contention for what could’ve been a historic upset. The first 20 minutes saw multiple Gael shooters cash in from deep, consistently capitalizing on UNC’s swarming defensive scheme and finding open looks outside the arc.

Reasonably enough, coach Roy Williams wasn’t happy, and his players were likely equally as unhappy to receive what likely was a daggum brutal halftime speech.

Given the Tar Heel eruption in the opening minutes of the second frame, it’s fair to assume that whatever he said worked, with UNC knotting the game up and quickly re-taking the lead in the second frame’s opening minute.

Spearheaded by senior leaders Cameron Johnson (21 points, seven rebounds, four assists, 4/8 threes), Luke Maye (16 points, nine rebounds) and Kenny Williams (eight points, eight rebounds, three assists), the Tar Heels found their footing and took off, shooting 62.8 in a fiery second half that helped UNC run away with an 88-73 victory.

Perhaps the star of the night, the enigmatic and inconsistent Nassir Little capitalized significantly on the Gaels’ lack of interior physicality, driving to the rim at will and getting nine of his 13 field goal attempts to fall in what was a complete showing for the freshman forward. His 19 points are the most scored by a Tar Heel freshman in the NCAA Tournament since Harrison Barnes dropped 24 against Marquette in 2011.

Fellow freshman Coby White struggled to score from the floor (4-of-14 FG, 2-of-8 3PT, 0-2 FT), but still finished the night with 10 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals. Sophomore big Garrison Brooks chipped in an additional 10 points and eight rebounds, particularly playing well in UNC’s stifling second-half effort.

UNC dominated inside the arc on both ends of the floor, grabbing rebound after rebound (52-26 edge), overpowering the smaller Gaels (48 points in the paint), and forcing Iona to live beyond the arc (only 14 two-point attempts, compared to 41 three-point attempts) due to relentless interior pressure. Iona’s offensive rebounding rate (5.9 percent) was the lowest by an opponent in the Roy Williams era, with their three-point attempt rate of 74.5 was the highest ever by a UNC opponent against Roy Williams.

McGill (26 points, 7-of-9 threes) led the Gaels in scoring in his final game in a maroon uniform, with Asante Gist (17 points, five assists), Andrija Ristanovic (11 points, six rebounds) and EJ Crawford (10 points, four rebounds) all chipping in double-digit scoring efforts in the loss.

Friday’s win improved Roy Williams’ first-round record to a pristine 29-0, marking the most wins without a loss for any coach in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Up next for UNC is a defensive-first Washington program that delivered a crushing loss to the upstart Utah State Aggies earlier on Friday. The No. 9 Huskies held the Aggies to 35.2 percent shooting, forcing 21 turnovers in what ended up as a 78-61 route.

The Huskies boast one of the best defenders in the nation in Matisse Thybulle who serves as the catalyst for a zone defense that racks up steals and blocks at a dangerous rate. UNC hasn’t found trouble against any zones thus far, but the Huskies present a new challenge for a Heels squad hoping to stay in the Tournament for more than one weekend.

Sunday’s meeting between UNC and Washington can be found on CBS, with an expected tip at 2:40 PM EST.