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UNC vs. Washington: Player of the Game - Nassir Little

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The talented freshman had plenty of help, but he is rounding into form at just the right time.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Washington vs North Carolina Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina freshman forward Nassir Little turned in another strong performance yesterday afternoon as part of a well-rounded 81-59 win over Washington in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Columbus, OH. Little scored 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting and added seven rebounds and one memorable block in 21 minutes off the bench.

Little’s 39 points are a team high through the first two tourney games. As he has shown throughout the season, in particular against zone defenses, the 6’6’’, 220-pound forward was one of the most talented players to step on the court.

Little started slowly by missing three of his first four attempts from the field and committing two first-half turnovers. He coughed it up for a third and final time in his first action after the break, but the 19-year-old soon stepped up big to help put the Huskies away.

Little grabbed a couple of offensive rebounds and then erupted to score 11 straight Carolina points and 13 of 16. He outdid the Huskies himself in that stretch, as the Heels’ lead blossomed from 56-42 at the 12-minute mark to 72-51 with six to play.

As Washington started to threaten a run midway through the second half, Little settled things down by drilling a 3-pointer from the right corner on an assist from senior guard Cam Johnson. Next, he hit a couple of short jumpers in the lane sandwiched around a pair of free throws. Then came probably the play of the game:

With the Huskies trailing 65-49 with under eight minutes to go after a Little basket, senior guard David Crisp received a screen at the elbow and tried to turn the corner for a lay-in on the left side. Little had different ideas, though, executing a smooth switch with freshman point guard Coby White and rejecting Crisp’s offer off the backboard to ignite a patented Carolina break. White pushed the ball down the court in three seconds and fed it inside to sophomore forward Garrison Brooks, who whipped a pass to Little in the lane for a power dribble and two-handed jam. That’s what you call cleaning up.

Afterwards, Johnson made a long ball for UNC’s first non-Nas points in nearly six minutes and then dished again to Little for an athletic layup to put a cap on the freshman’s flurry. Little exited shortly thereafter with the game well in hand, but he returned to drain a nice fall-away jump shot with 1:30 left to complete his 15-point second half.

Little sliced and diced Washington’s zone with decisive moves, serving as a potent fulcrum in the middle of Carolina’s attack. He struggled early deciphering when to attack the basket and when to pull up and had a couple of shots blocked, but he eventually emerged as a master key that unlocked a comfortable postseason victory for the Heels. The projected high NBA draft pick is still shaky with his orthodox mid-range jump shot, but Little seems to enjoy more success with one-handed push shots with his momentum carrying him towards the basket – perfect for busting a zone.

Little was also disruptive on the glass as part of a 48-24 team rebounding domination. One example was when Johnson misfired on a three-pointer and the freshman rose high above everyone else to pull down the board and convert a turn-around jumper plus a foul. That play gave the Heels a 34-20 lead with eight minutes to go before halftime and was Little’s main splash before intermission, along with a beautiful outlet pass earlier that resulted in a layup by junior guard Brandon Robinson.

After a 22-point tournament win, naturally quite a few Heels are candidates for Player of the Game. White scored 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting and was on fire in the first half, making 4-of-5 three-pointers to demoralize the Huskies. He also chipped in six rebounds and two assists in 35 minutes.

Senior forward Luke Maye had 20 points and 14 rebounds in 33 minutes, numbers that would normally pencil him into this space. Maye was excellent overall, but he was somewhat inefficient, connecting on only 8-of-19 shots and missing several easy ones down low, especially early. He committed three turnovers.

Johnson also played very well, pitching in 13 points, three rebounds, and a season-high seven assists without a turnover in 34 minutes. The graduate transfer’s playmaking has been the most improved and underrated part of his game as the season has progressed, and he took care of the ball on a day when UNC gave it away 15 times.

But Little deserves the nod again in Columbus. His energy has been a constant all season, but Little’s understanding of how to attack, post moves, and defense are developing at rapid rates to provide Carolina the ultimate X-factor to challenge the rest of the tournament field.