By Turner Walston
Don't play to the scoreboard. That was the challenge issued at halftime of Friday's NCAA Tournament win over Texas Southern by Tar Heel head coach Roy Williams. Don't play to the scoreboard. At the time, Williams' team was ahead by 25 points, all but assured of a date Sunday with Arkansas. But don't play to the scoreboard.
"That's exactly what he told us before we ran out on the court (for the second half)," point guard Joel Berry said. "Don't play to the score, just play to get better."
Carolina was supposed to win on Friday. Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams (and since, to 68), no 16 seed has knocked off a 1 seed. After separate early scoring runs of 16 and 14 points, respectively, the Tar Heels were not about to be that first victim. But every opportunity to take the floor is a chance to get better, and Williams proved that when he called a timeout with seven seconds remaining in the opening half. The Tar Heels led by 22, but Williams drew up a play for Justin Jackson to hunt for his sixth three-pointer of the half. Berry ended up taking, and making, the shot, and the lead was 25.
The Tar Heels won the second half by 14 points en route to a 39-point win. Nine Tar Heels played at least 15 minutes. Carolina out-rebounded the Tigers by a 54-27 margin. They had 18 assists on 38 made field goals, and Jackson burst out of a shooting slump to make five of his eight three-point attempts. They scored 15 points off 13 Tiger turnovers and had 29 points on 20 offensive rebounds. They were supposed to win, and they went about their business in a workmanlike fashion. Up 25 at the half, the Tar Heels could have free-lanced their offense for the final 20 minutes. But they didn't look at the scoreboard.
"We got off to a good start," Williams said. "Shared the ball early and got the ball inside. We felt like we had a big advantage inside. We wanted to get there, and we did."
Four Tar Heel big men - Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, Luke Maye and Tony Bradley each scored in double figures. They combined for 27 rebounds, or as many as Texas Southern had as a team. They did what they were supposed to do. Hicks got off to a good start, playing his matchups and scoring six points before the first official timeout. Just as a hot start is important for Hicks as an individual, so too is one for his team. In a game, but also in a tournament that will take six games of escalating competition over two and a half weeks to win. "Step one is all about creating the momentum going into other games," Hicks said. "I feel like we did a great job of that. Now, it's all about the next step."
Quality of opponent aside –and congratulations to SWAC regular season and tournament champions Texas Southern on a fine season– Friday's game was about executing, about the Tar Heels doing things better than they did last week in Brooklyn at the ACC Tournament. "It was an opportunity to do a better job defending (than we did last week against Duke)," Nate Britt said. "Make sure everyone is building confidence and running our plays and playing defense the right way so that we can build momentum."
It was a happy locker room after Friday's win. Joel Berry turned his ankle in the second half but returned to play a four-minute stretch and build confidence for Sunday. Jackson tied Shammond Williams' single-season school three-point record. There was a '32' on the whiteboard in the corner. The Tar Heels advanced.
Arkansas awaits, and the task gets tougher, which is why the Tar Heels could not afford to simply walk through the second half on Friday. Every time on the court is a chance to get better. The Tar Heels will hit the practice floor on Saturday, but there is nothing like full-speed live action, regardless of opponent. "We had a great first step," Theo Pinson said. "We built momentum today. We see what we can do when we're locked in, so we're going to try to keep going for Sunday."
Williams says he seldom checks the scoreboard in the first half. He did on Friday, seeing his team down 10-8 early. That was just before Jackson started that first big run. He didn't check the score in the second. His team executed, kept their concentration and now lives to play on Sunday.
"We could have played to the score (in the second half), but there are bigger things that we want to get to, and there are better teams than the team that we played tonight," Berry said. "So to do [those big things], we've got to be able to get better as a team."
That means locking down on defense and winning every possession, something they continued to do to earn the win.