UNC Basketball: Grit, toughness lead Tar Heels past Huskies in Round of 32

COLUMBUS, OHIO – MARCH 24: Nassir Little #5 of the North Carolina Tar Heels goes up for a shot against Hameir Wright #13 of the Washington Huskies during their game in the Second Round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament at Nationwide Arena on March 24, 2019 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

No. 1 UNC Basketball sent the No. 9 Washington Huskies home with their tails between their legs, winning the NCAA Tournament Round of 32 matchup, 81-59.

A mouth full of bloodied, busted teeth. A sore, cramping left hamstring. A near-poster dunk over a hapless Husky defender. A 22-point beatdown over another zone defense, this time instituted by the No. 9 Washington Huskies. And another Sweet 16 berth for Roy Williams and No. 1 UNC Basketball.

Just another day in the office for a Carolina program whose toughness and grit have become media fodder over the years, with plenty of instances of bloodied bodies (Tyler Hansbrough, Eric Montross) and aching limbs (Joel Berry II) making their way into the headlines whether the Tar Heels want it or not.

It’s safe to say that Garrison Brooks didn’t want to spend a majority of the first half back in the locker room receiving stitches and treatment for a hit to the mouth — delivered by the elbow of Washington’s Noah Dickerson — while his teammates competed without him. It’s also equally as unlikely that Kenny Williams wanted to sit early in the second half due to what appeared to be a tight, cramped hamstring, yet it happened nonetheless.

No matter. Wounds and injuries heal, as unfortunate and unpleasant as they may be. The endurance is what makes a player a player, a team a team, and a championship contender a championship contender. Injuries are to be pushed through, as they’re a part of the game of basketball, and UNC played like an experienced squad that knew and prepared for this inevitability as well as anyone possibly could.

Cameron Johnson traded in his bag of long-range arrows for a bag of dimes, dishing out seven assists without a single turnover, while still chipping in his usual contributions on the scoreboard (13 points, three 3-pointers). The freshman duo of Coby White (17 points, six rebounds, two assists, four 3-pointers) and Nassir Little (20 points, seven rebounds) took turns ripping apart another zone, just as they did against Syracuse back in February, making Mike Hopkins’ crop of veteran defenders look ineffective and helpless as they failed time and time again to prevent Carolina’s shots from falling.

Senior forward Luke Maye went to work on the glass, per usual, recording his fifteenth double-double of the season in a 20-point, 14-rebound showing. As a whole, UNC dominated the glass, hauling in 48 rebounds (to Washington’s 24), with 15 offensive rebounds paving the way for 17 second chance points.

Finding holes in the Huskies’ defensive coverage, the Heels found themselves plenty of opportune glances at the basket, firing from over the top of the zone (9-of-21 from deep) and attacking the paint and middle of the zone (38 points in the paint) with little resistance. Washington’s Matisse Thybulle (four steals, two blocks) racked up his usual collection of stocks, with the Huskies forcing 15 turnovers on the afternoon and scoring 24 points as a result, but missed opportunities on offense and poor rebounding led to a Round of 32 exit for a Pac-12 program that hasn’t advanced to the Tournament’s second weekend since 2010.

Just another day at the office.

While the Huskies are on their way back to the familiar scenery of Seattle, the Tar Heels will make a brief trip home to Chapel Hill before hitting the road once more to Kansas City, where the streaking No. 5 Auburn Tigers await. After downing No. 12 New Mexico State and No. 4 Kansas in the weekend’s first two rounds, the Tigers have cemented themselves as one of the nation’s hottest teams, surely a more promising opponent than the former two teams that UNC has defeated thus far.

Auburn is no slouch. Sixth in offense (per KenPom), sixteenth in three-point shooting (38.2 3P%), and first in opposing turnover percentage (25.2 TO%), the Tigers run through quality teams with a potent mixture of perimeter shooting and defensive tenacity that has turned them into a legitimate title contender. Their surge through the SEC was promising, but two Tournament wins — a pounding of the Jayhawks and a nail-biter over the Aggies — have the Tigers firmly in the race for the 2019 NCAA Championship.

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UNC, of course, isn’t ready to cower and bow out just yet. Wins over Iona and Washington have the Tar Heels two steps closer to the program’s seventh NCAA title, but more games are to be played. Thursday’s bout with Auburn is no exception, and that’s to be expected.

After all, it’s just another day at the office.