COLUMBUS, OHIO — It was a shock to the senses.
Iona, 38, UNC, 33. At halftime. Of the NCAA Tournament. With UNC as a No. 1 seed and Iona as a No. 16 seed. And, perhaps most crucially, with Roy “28-0 in the NCAA First Round” Williams coaching.
These things didn’t happen, the Tar Heels bricking layups, not being able to get on the break, and No. 1 seeds trailing at halftime. Even UVA, unfortunate victims to UMBC last year, still entered the locker room tied before losing by 20.
“The first half was a little embarrassing,” Cameron Johnson said. “You don't want to come into the half down, and we were frustrated with that.”
So, what do you say to a locker room after such an anomaly? Do you make drastic changes, changing defensive schemes to ward off another 10-for-21 performance from three like the Gaels had in the first half? Do you scream in the players’ face, making the obvious situation crystal clear to the team?
One could panic like that. Most of us would. Or, you could do what Roy Williams did. Remind the team who there were, and how they could play, and, in the nicest way possible, tell them they weren’t showing the passion needed to get through.
“There was actually no yelling,” Kenny Williams said. “They preached passion at halftime. We played with more fire, we played with more effort, and the Xs and Os took care of itself.”
Took care of itself, indeed.
With the added emphasis on doing the little things right, and playing with heart, the Tar Heels (28-6) outscored the Gaels 55-35 in the second half, holding Iona (17-16) to just 8-of-25 from the field and 5-for-20 from beyond the arc while shooting 62.9 percent (22-35) themselves in the final 20 minutes.
“He had faith in us to play well,” Luke Maye said of Coach Williams. “We just knew that we were going to come out and play better.”
Schematically, Roy Williams said, he made very few adjustments at halftime, only telling his 1 through 4 players to switch on ball screens rather than create a hard edge like they had done in the first half. But, he noted, Iona didn’t screen that much, so not much changed on the defensive end besides his team playing harder and doing a better job of getting in people’s grills.
It helped, of course, that UNC was the more talented team. “Bigger, stronger, more blessed” to use some of Williams’ favorite phrases. And that Iona came down from the nirvana of their shooting in the first half to finish with a percentage from three (36.6 percent) closer to their season average (33.9 percent). But, as Cameron Johnson points out, there’s a reason that percentage dropped so fast.
“You can get a hand up, you can contest a shot, but there's a difference between that really getting up into the other team,” Johnson said. “We made them more uncomfortable in the second half, forcing turnovers, forcing tougher shots, and it got them out of rhythm.”
Offensively, an increased emphasis on UNC’s size advantage in the post caused Iona problems down the stretch. Inside-out passes for threes, Maye and Garrison Brooks making the bunnies they missed in the first half, and Nassir Little dropping 19 off the bench thanks to aggressive drives with vicious finishes.
Little’s 19 were the most points for a freshman at Carolina in the NCAA tournament since Harrison Barnes dropped 20 in the Sweet 16 of the 2011 tournament against Marquette.
“If he's just aggressive, that helps us,” Kenny Williams said. “Because you can't leave him alone. If you leave him alone, he dunks on your head.”
It was an effort to be proud of, at the end of night, though certainly one with room for improvement. UNC moves on to face Washington and their 2-3 zone on Sunday at 2:45 p.m. For Roy Williams, he just hopes the Iona win will serve as a lesson in a broader story.
“I told them in the locker room, every tournament's different,” Roy Williams said. “I was on the staff of a pretty good team -- 1982. And the first game we played James Madison in Charlotte. And we blew them out, 52 to 50.
“So it happens. And we had a guy named Worthy, a guy named Jordan and a guy named Perkins on that team. We ended up winning the national championship. So it's one game, but learn from this one game. We've got to have more passion.”