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'We're finally here': First-years Coby White and Nassir Little shine in UNC's win

In a beatdown of No. 10 Virginia Tech, White had 27 and Little had 23 for the No. 11 Tar Heels.

Nassir Little vs Virginia Tech
Forward Nassir Little (5) shoots the ball during the men's basketball game vs. Virginia Tech at the Smith Center on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. The Tar Heels won 103-82.

When Coby White called for a high pick, faked a drive and stepped back for a deep three over Virginia Tech’s Ahmed Hill, North Carolina hadn't led all game.

But when White’s shot swished — giving the Tar Heels a 31-29 lead and adding to what became a 20-0 run — it prompted a barrage of 3-pointers and highlight plays that led North Carolina to a comfortable 103-82 win over the No. 10 Hokies and their fifth-ranked scoring defense.

And White and Nassir Little, UNC’s two first-year stars, were right in the middle of it.

White had a game-high 27 points, along with seven rebounds and six assists. Little scored a career-high 23, shooting 7-12 and a perfect 7-7 on free throws. With 50 combined points, they accounted for just under half of North Carolina’s 103 against Virginia Tech, whose previous high for points allowed this season was 83.

“It's not a relief,” said Little, who has scored double digits in UNC’s last three games. “It's just fun, man. This is the basketball I'm used to playing … this is me.”

“Yeah," said White, just feet away from his teammate. "We were definitely having fun."

UNC first-year guard Coby White (2) dribbles past Virginia Tech sophomore guard Wabissa Bede (3) in the Smith Center on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. The Tar Heels won 103-82.

It was only the third time in UNC history that two first-years scored at least 20 points each in the same game. Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants did it twice, against Virginia and N.C. State in 2003.

Such an output hasn’t been too rare this season for White, who scored 20 or more for the third time and led the team in scoring for the sixth time. It’s been rarer for Little, who started ACC play with point totals of six, two and six.

But, with both first-years playing to their abilities, the Tar Heels have looked dominant, as they did on Monday night. White became the first player to lead UNC in points, rebounds, assists and steals since Joseph Forte in 2001, and North Carolina moved to 10-1 when Little scored 10 or more.

“They were great,” sophomore Garrison Brooks said. “I mean, all three of them, from Leaky (Black) to Coby to Nas, I knew they were going to be big-time players. It's just in due time.”

UNC first-year forwardNassir Little (5) goes in for a slam dunk as Virginia Tech graduate guard Ahmed Hill (13) attempts to defend at the Smith Center on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. The Tar Heels won 103-82.

At one point, the three first-years combined for 18 straight UNC points. That included a good portion of North Carolina’s 20-0 run: two threes by White, a three from Black, two Little free throws and another three from White. And that chemistry didn’t go away.

In a postgame interview, Little estimated that he and White both assisted each other “two or three times.” He was spot on. Two of White’s 3-pointers came off Little’s passes, and two of Little’s second-half makes — one three and one layup — were courtesy of his first-year teammate.

“It was just a crazy feeling,” White said. “We were playing big in a big-time game, and it was like, 'We're finally here. We're finally doing our thing.’”

The first-years’ defensive improvement was tangible, too. White entered Monday’s game with two consecutive defensive player of the game honors and had four steals against Virginia Tech. Little had his best two individual defensive grades against Notre Dame and Miami. And he had an equally strong performance against the Hokies, which included energetic bench minutes, successful hedging on screens and a first-half steal and dunk.

Head coach Roy Williams had compliments for each first-year: Little for his obvious defensive improvement; White for his Ty Lawson-like ability to control a game with shooting and passing; Black for doubling the post and getting a steal as soon as he subbed in.

“Nineteen games, that’s quite a few opportunities to go out and play,” Williams said of their development. “You shouldn’t still be a freshman.”

Based on the hordes of media surrounding each of them, their constant appearances in mock drafts and, most notably, their performances on Monday night, White and Little are starting to play like anything but.

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