COLUMBUS, Ohio — In what was mostly a game of two halves, first-year wing Nassir Little was the lone constant.
No. 1 seed North Carolina survived a first-half scare against No. 16 seed Iona on Friday, overcoming a 38-33 halftime deficit to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Yet if it wasn’t for Little – or, as senior guard Kenny Williams put it, “the Nas that I love to see” – the 88-73 win would likely never have come to pass.
“If he’s aggressive…” Williams trailed off. “That’s it. If he’s aggressive, then he takes us to another level, because he’s a great player. It’s just a matter of him getting it, and I think tonight he got it.”
For Little, “getting it” entailed posting 19 points on an efficient 9-13 shooting from the field, the most points tallied by a first-year UNC player in an NCAA Tournament game since Harrison Barnes lit up Marquette in the Sweet 16 for 20 in 2011.
Eight of those points came in a first half where his Tar Heel teammates shot a combined 9-33 from the field and 3-13 from 3-point range. Little was a key part of keeping North Carolina afloat, until a 25-7 second-half run put UNC over the top.
“Our offense was not very good,” head coach Roy Williams said. “The only offense we had in the first half was Nassir taking the ball to the basket.”
In one especially important stretch, Little scored in the paint on three consecutive possessions to help the Tar Heels stay neck-and-neck with the Gaels entering halftime.
“I just look at what the team needs,” Little said. “I felt like early on, we was taking too many outside shots. Before the game, coach and all the coaching staff was telling me to be aggressive, and get easy buckets on the inside, and play inside-out.”
Graduate guard Cameron Johnson, who himself recorded 21 points, including 16 in the second half, described the difficulty of trying to contain Little.
“He’s a bull,” Johnson said. “He’s strong. He stepped on the scale the other day, and I was like, ‘For real?’”
The play that was perhaps most emblematic of Little’s bull-like strength was a second half and-one layup, where he muscled a Gael defender inside, then completed the three-point play.
“And he can move like that, he can run, jump,” Johnson continued. “He kind of imposed his will on them.”
As for Little’s explosiveness, it was on display in a second-half reverse jam, one that gave the Tar Heels a commanding 18-point lead.
“Once we picked it up defensively, we got easy buckets in transition,” Little said. “Guys were being more aggressive taking it to the basket, putting pressure on their guys, getting people in foul trouble, and that’s how we were able to get away.”
Little was efficient in both halves, shooting 4-7 before the break and 5-6 after – a strong showing in his first ever NCAA Tournament game. With Little in tow, the Tar Heels got the only thing you can ask for in March: the chance to play one more game.
“It feels great, man,” Little said. “First of my career, it just feels amazing. I’m really glad to be here.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.