Nate Britt had just about heard it all by the time Sunday’s second half started.
Roy Williams had already lit into his North Carolina basketball team after the first media timeout. Then at halftime, assistant coach Steve Robinson gave Britt and teammate Justin Jackson an earful for a first-half defensive effort — or lack thereof — that allowed Tennessee to shoot 65.4 percent, tied for the fourth-highest percentage in a half by a visiting team in Smith Center history.
“They came out and played with more energy than us,” first-year wing Brandon Robinson said. “(Williams) thought we were prepared for the game, but we didn’t come out with energy.”
Without point guard Joel Berry for the second straight game, the Tar Heels opened up the game — in Britt’s words — "lackadaisically" for the second straight time. Williams said his team’s effort in Wednesday's win over Davidson “sucked,” and he said that Sunday’s 73-71 win against the Volunteers was the luckiest he’s been in 29 years of coaching.
“You can see how much we need him,” Britt said of Berry. “Joel brings that energy on both sides of the court, and I think that’s what we missed and we had to get used to playing without since he’s been out.”
With Berry sidelined, the Tar Heels looked aimless on offense and passive on defense. UNC shot 35.9 percent in the first half compared to 65.4 percent for Tennessee. And without junior wing Theo Pinson, the job of setting the tone fell to the normally reserved Britt by default.
“On the defensive end, it has to be me leading by example,” he said.
So Britt didn’t wait any longer to ratchet up the defensive intensity. Less than two minutes into the second half, he poked the ball away from Tennessee guard Shembari Phillips. Seconds later, he did it again, then tossed it ahead to Jackson for UNC’s second straight layup.
After trailing by as many as 15, the deficit was back to two and the Smith Center crowd that had precious little to cheer for in the first half was making its presence known.
“I think the early steals in the second half gave us a lift,” Britt said. “We got the crowd into the game; we got our wind into the game.”
There was still a lot of basketball to be played between that point and what ultimately ended up as a 73-71 UNC victory. North Carolina didn’t take the lead until the final few minutes, when Jackson finished a layup and another Britt steal — his fifth of the game — ended in a Brandon Robinson tip-in.
But for the first time, the Tar Heels looked competent. And as the crowd roared and the energy throbbed through the building to start the second half, Britt had heard it all.
“I think we did a good job of bringing that lift early in the second half,” Britt said. “That’s how we have to start out every game.”
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