Ugly first half, hammer drop in the second and UNC is moving on to the 2nd Round of the NCAA Tournament. Here is what we learned.
Heels get first tournament scare
It happens. It often doesn't happen with a #1 seed facing a #16 seed but that was the case tonight. It wasn't unexpected that the Tar Heels came out a little sluggish while FGCU had a game under its belt. The Eagles played looser early while UNC looked a little passive on both ends of the floor. The expected Tar Heel run came with the contest five minutes old and with 9:50 left UNC went up 11 points on a Marcus Paige three. In that respect this game followed the script and that script called for the Tar Heels to drop the hammer to finish off the half.
It didn't work out that way mainly because UNC's defense was porous. FGCU found plenty of holes to drive and the rotations left the Tar Heel big men out of position. The Eagles feasted on the easy looks on the way to 61% shooting in the first half. On the other end UNC sputtered offensively and the 11 point lead was down to just one at the break.
Clearly the first half was enough to scare the Tar Heels into playing like a #1 seed in the second half. UNC came out of the locker room with an 11-2 run and over the next 13 minutes outscored FGCU 34-12 to push the lead out to a game high 23. Both Brice Johnson and Isaiah Hicks expressed disappointment in the team's first half effort. Johnson went as far as to say what happened in the second half didn't erase the fact the team played poorly.
Johnson during the postgame press conference:
At the end of the day you are kind of mad the way you played in the first half. You're not going to forget that. Even though you're up 20, I'm still not satisfied the way we play. Even though we won by 20, we could have played a lot better and won by a lot more than we did.
Last season UNC took a double digit lead on Harvard only to have the Crimson rally and take the lead. UNC needed a late charge to pull out the win and advance. These Tar Heels responded in a more forceful manner coming out of halftime with a mentality that had been lacking effectively ending the game in a ten minute span. With their tournament feet wet for this season and a scare out of the way, it will be surprising if the same mistake is made again.
Two years ago Florida Gulf Coast got the reputation for dunks with a group of athletic players that took a #15 seed into the Sweet Sixteen for the first time. That team adopted the moniker "Dunk City" for their high flying act. This year's version of FGCU wasn't quite in the mold but the "Dunk City" was still very much attached to the Florida Gulf Coast brand.
In this game the Eagles didn't have a single dunk. The real story was dunks but blocks and Brice Johnson had eight including six in the second half. Johnson's eight blocks were a career high for him and set a record for a UNC player in an NCAA Tournament game. It also helped changed the tenor of the game. While UNC did get into gear offensively, the defense also picked up with Johnson's block party being a key factor in getting the FGCU offensive attack off the rails.
Joel Berry toughest UNC player since....
The easy answer to that question is Tyler Hansbrough though Marcus Paige has put his share of toughness on display during his four seasons. Berry is clearly ready to wrestle Roy Williams' nickname of "tough nut" away from Paige. Game in, game out, Berry continues to show an incredible level of toughness.
The sophomore guard also played football in high school and brings a football mentality to the court. Berry isn't afraid the drive into traffic and absorb contact at the rim. One of his notable t improvements this season has been his ability to finish around the rim which he often does with contact. The fact UNC can get offense from Berry's drives to the basket has more than compensated for Marcus Paige's offensive game falling off in second half of the season.
However what might be most impressive is Berry's willingness to mix it up with bigger players. There were two instances on Thursday evening Berry stuck his nose in and took the ball from a bigger FGCU player. That kind of mentality led to six rebounds for for Berry which was second best on the team for the game.
It has been clear for quite some time this team's success is predicated on Brice Johnson and Joel Berry. The latter has brought a level a toughness and penchant for hitting the big shot which is giving this team an edge it lacked last season.