GREENVILLE, S.C. — In its first postseason game since a national title loss, the North Carolina men's basketball team easily dispatched Texas Southern, 103-64, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
The No. 1 seed Tar Heels (28-7) attacked the paint early and often against the undersized Tigers (23-12). Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks combined for UNC's first eight points, and the frontcourt tallied 19 of the team's 24 points through the first eight minutes.
No. 16 seed Texas Southern did hold an early advantage, punctuated by an alley-oop and a 3-pointer to take a 10-8 lead. But the Tar Heels took control with a 16-0 run, kickstarted by the assertive play of ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson, who was the only non-post player to score for UNC until the closing seconds of the first half.
While the frontcourt commanded attention early, Jackson quickly made his presence known. After hitting a 3-pointer five minutes into the game, the junior wing hit four more late in the period to tie the UNC single-season record with 95 made threes on the year.
The second half showed little reprieve for the Tigers, who trailed by 25 points at halftime. The Tar Heels received a scare early in the half, though, when point guard Joel Berry rolled his right ankle and left the game. He eventually returned, but UNC turned to its second unit for much of the second period as its lead grew to as much as 42 points.
Who stood out?
As he has countless times this season, Justin Jackson stole the show.
The junior scored 21 points to lead North Carolina, hitting five 3-pointers in the first half to tie the UNC single-season record (95). He broke his previous career high for points in an NCAA Tournament game, and his 19 first-half points were his second most this season, just shy of a 20-point half in a Dec. 17 loss to Kentucky.
Isaiah Hicks carried his postseason success from the ACC Tournament into the NCAA Tournament. After earning All-Tournament first-team honors after two 19-point games against Miami and Duke, the senior forward scored 17 points on 8-of-12 shooting. He did miss his first free throw since March 4 — when he went 7-for-8 in a win against Duke — but he committed just one foul against the Tigers, who are among the nation's best at drawing contact.
Both players entered the postseason mired in recent slumps. And while Texas Southern is hardly a juggernaut, their performances are positive signs for the Tar Heels.
When was it decided?
After having its way inside in the early minutes, the Tar Heels allowed two quick Texas Southern scores to fall behind by two points.
But Justin Jackson and the UNC frontcourt combined for a 16-0 run to give North Carolina an insurmountable lead. And after the Tigers cut the deficit back to single digits, Jackson drilled four 3-pointers in three minutes to settle any doubt of his postseason struggles and bury Texas Southern for good.
Why does it matter?
Winning in the first round has become almost a birthright for North Carolina. The Tar Heels haven't lost its NCAA Tournament opener since 1999, including 12 straight wins under head coach Roy Williams.
More importantly, a dominant win in the tournament opener brings UNC one step closer to redeeming its title loss from a season ago. The Tar Heels won their first five games by an average of 16.4 points per game in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. A 39-point win, the most lopsided of the tournament thus far, is a good start.
Where do they play next?
The Tar Heels remain in Greenville to face No. 8 seed Arkansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. The time is yet to be announced.
This marks the sixth time the two teams have met in the NCAA Tournament. They last played in 2015, when North Carolina downed the Razorbacks, 87-78, in the second round. They also played in the second round in 2008, when UNC claimed a 108-77 win.
Arkansas hasn't won a postseason game over the Tar Heels since a Final Four victory in 1995, when the Razorbacks lost in the national championship game a year after beating Duke for their only title.
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