COLUMBUS, OHIO — Roy Williams had a simple message for Nassir Little and Coby White before the start of the NCAA Tournament.
The two first-years, who are both projected lottery picks in the upcoming NBA draft, were told by their head coach, “Y’all are no longer freshmen.” The two certainly backed up that claim to lead the North Carolina men’s basketball team past Washington, 81-59, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday afternoon in Columbus, Ohio.
Little has often said this year that for the team to reach its full potential, he has to play his best basketball. And so before the tournament started Little spoke with White, his teammate and friend, about what they needed to do moving forward.
“We told each other, ‘Bro, we gotta hoop,’” Little said. “Although we’re freshmen and this is our first one, we can’t be lacking.”
Thus far through two games, the duo has certainly not held back in their effort. Against the ninth-seeded Huskies, Little and White combined for 37 points to get the No. 1 seeded Tar Heels (29-6) back to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five years.
“We’re real dangerous, man,” White said about he and Little after the game, “especially when it’s me and Nassir and everybody to me, everybody’s clicking like we did tonight, as you had seen it’s hard to stop.”
The 37 points scored by the two were the most from two UNC first-years in the NCAA Tournament since the 2005-2006 season. More importantly, North Carolina is almost perfect, at 15-1, when both score in double figures this season.
“It makes us virtually unguardable, because at that point you don’t know who to focus on,” Little said.
The first-years took turns giving Washington headaches on Sunday. In the first half, it was White leading the way with four 3-pointers in the first 11 minutes of the game.
His final 3-pointer of the half, and game, put UNC up 31-18 as North Carolina showed early on that it was capable of easily beating Washington's zone. On the day, White finished with 17 points, six rebounds and two assists, and continuously caused headaches for the Huskies by taking the ball down the court at breakneck speed.
After White took over in the first half, it was Little who proved to be the main attraction in the second half of play.
The forward scored 15 of his 20 points in the final 20 minutes, and finished with seven rebounds and a thunderous block. He routinely solved Washington's zone defense by flashing through the lane and finding open looks, at one point scoring 11 consecutive points for UNC.
"I just kind of thank the defense for that man, because anything inside the defense is just like my dominant areas," Little said. "I’m glad they did that (played zone defense)."
Little certainly exploited the interior and the result was the most points scored by a non-starter for UNC in an NCAA Tournament game since Marvin Williams in the second round of the 2005 NCAA Tournament.
In the last two games, Little has come into his own and it couldn't come at a better time for UNC. His 39 points in two NCAA Tournament games are the most he's scored over any two-game stretch this season.
Senior guard Kenny Williams agreed with his coach's earlier assessment to the two first-years, calling it "foolish" to say the two are still first-years after all the contributions they've made this season.
“They’re not (first-years)," Kenny Williams said. "They play plenty of minutes, so it would be foolish to call them freshmen at this point. Now in March, with the minutes they’ve played and the time they’ve spent on the court, I wouldn’t call them freshmen anymore.”
Now, one year removed from a second-round defeat in the NCAA Tournament, the two young newcomers have UNC back to the Sweet 16 once again.
"There’s 300 something teams in the country, Division I, and we are one of the 16 teams left, and I think that’s something to be happy about," Little said. "But we still have work to do."