It sure wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was maddening at times. But North Carolina grabbed its first home win of the ACC schedule Monday night, surviving a plucky performance from the young Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. That Carolina was able to hold serve at home was not particularly surprising (this is not a vintage Mike Brey Irish squad) but the manner in which they won answered some questions about Roy Williams’ team.
Here are three things we learned from UNC’s win last night:
This Team Can Indeed Win Ugly
If I were to tell you before tipoff that the Heels would shoot worse than 40% from the field, would miss 8 of their 20 free throws, and that Luke Maye, Cam Johnson, and Kenny Williams would combine to go 11-32 from the field, you would be forgiven for assuming that this game would end in a loss.
Last night’s 75 points was the lowest point total the Heels have tallied in a victory this season. Their halfcourt offense struggled tremendously in the first half, the bigs looked utterly hapless trying to score in the paint, and they lacked any real flow to their play throughout the night. And yet, they came away with a W.
Credit for this victory largely belongs to the Tar Heels’ effort on the defensive end in the 2nd half. While Notre Dame didn’t exactly blow the doors off in the first (the way Louisville most certainly did), they seemed to be a step ahead, particularly in manipulating the Carolina D with high ball screens, particularly double screens. After the intermission, UNC started going under the screens instead of over, forcing Notre Dame’s primary ballhandler, Prentiss Hubb, to try and beat them shooting from the pocket. He couldn’t.
In addition, the Tar Heels once again won the battle on the glass, out-rebounding the Irish 47-38 and ripping down 16 offensive boards. Not too bad when facing a terrific rebounder like John Mooney.
Nassir Little May Have Found His Sweet Spot
The ongoing saga of Nassir Little and the media’s obsession with him is not going anywhere soon. So long as RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cam Reddish are breaking the earth eight miles up the road, that four-letter network from Bristol will find airtime to wonder why Nas isn’t doing the same.
Last night, however, Little might have made a crucial step forward. The first half brought the same lack of production that has frustrated us and (surely to a much greater degree) Nassir: Just one missed field goal attempt. The second half, however, was his domain. With the game very much either team’s to win, Little went on a fantastic run on both ends of the floor. He slashed to the basket for dunks, he finished through contact, he ran the floor on the break, and he didn’t force the action.
Little finished with 11 points and 6 rebounds, all but one rebound of that production coming in the second half. It wasn’t a scoreline that will light up any marquees, but it was efficient, it was clutch, and it was something that he is fully capable of doing for two halves every night. When he patiently waits for his opportunities to slash and attack the basket, Little is at his very best. If this is a harbinger of things to come, it’s going to get real interesting for the Heels going forward.
Brandon Robinson Is Not the Odd Man Out After All
Much has been discussed about UNC’s depth this season and how to field the best possible rotation going forward. Particularly crowded are the wings, where Cam Johnson, Kenny Williams, Nassir Little, Leaky Black, and Brandon Robinson are all looking to get minutes. The veterans Johnson and Williams have their starting spots secure and the promising freshmen Little and Black have been the obvious choices to take the bulk of the backup minutes. This has led to Robinson largely being the forgotten man much of the season.
In the last five games, however, that has not been the case. Since the start of 2019, Brandon has gone 6-8 from three point range, has come up with five steals and two blocks, played a bigger role in the offense, and has only committed two turnovers. He’s averaging 14.5 minutes per game (up from his 11 minutes before the New Year) and he’s appeared much more comfortable in the flow of the game.
Last night, he had his most important game of the season. With Carolina floundering much of the first half offensively, Robinson knocked down three big 3-point shots to keep the Heels afloat. He played 16 minutes, most of it before the intermission (Little took the bulk of the bench minutes in the second half), while Leaky Black only played 3. Without B-Rob’s contributions, things could have gotten out of hand for the Tar Heels, much as they did against the Cardinals.
One game doesn’t determine a player’s role for the remainder of the season. Black’s limited minutes against the Irish certainly don’t mean that Roy is shelving him. But last night was a reminder that B-Rob is a veteran player who can be relied on to do his job when the Tar Heels need to get a crucial win.