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UNC survives sloppy first half against Iona, 88-73, with big second-half surge

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Iona v North Carolina Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

There are no style points awarded this time of year, so it really doesn’t matter much if a team wins ugly or grits out a hard-earned victory. Although we’d prefer to see our team blow out their competition, the chips don’t always fall that way. That was certainly the case in UNC’s first game of the NCAA Tournament against Iona, but the Tar Heels found a way to survive.

Carolina had a fairly abysmal first half, shooting just 32% from the field. Iona, on the other hand. was red-hot from beyond the arc. The Gaels gave the Heels all they could handle, sinking ten threes to put two players in double figures before halftime. UNC had no players in double figures at the half, and they shot just 23% from three. It was a five-point lead for Iona after 20 minutes.

The final 20 minutes, however, belonged to the Tar Heels. Carolina came out of the locker room on a tear, assisted by the fact that their opponent dramatically cooled off after the break. Iona went on to shoot just 25% from distance the rest of the way, making 15 of their 41 attempts from deep for the game.

It was a stark contrast to what UNC was able to do in the second half. They shot nearly 63% from the field and 44% from three en route to a 55-point half. Leading scorer Cameron Johnson scored 16 of his 21 points after halftime, finishing the game 4-8 from downtown. Coby White (10), Luke Maye (16), and Garrison Brooks (10) joined Johnson in double figures, but the fifth Tar Heel to eclipse that mark was perhaps the most important.

Nassir Little scored 19 points in 17 minutes off the bench, giving him the second-most points by a Carolina freshman in a NCAA game since Harrison Barnes dropped 20 on Marquette in 2011. Little was 9-13 from the field and expertly navigated picking up two first half fouls. He was efficient and dominant start to finish.

It won’t be remembered as UNC’s cleanest win of the year by any means, but it did show a great deal of maturity and poise under pressure. That kind of lesson is a valuable one this time of year, and it’s good that the team could get it out of the way early.

In the postgame press conference, Roy Williams referenced the 1982 team’s first game against James Madison in Charlotte. The Tar Heels won a nail-biter by two points with a team that featured James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and Michael Jordan. Things ended pretty well for that squad after facing early adversity, hopefully we can say the same about the 2018-2019 team when it’s all said and done.

Carolina advances to play Washington in Columbus on Sunday at approximately 2:45 pm.