COLUMBUS, OHIO — With just 3:30 left in UNC’s NCAA tournament second round win over Washington, Kenny Williams took a seat on the bench and worked on his left hamstring with a mechanical roller, attempting alleviate some of the pain in his left hamstring.
Next to him Nassir Little sat fiddling with a towel, having scored 18 points in a burst of energy off the bench already in the half, nearly missing out on two more from a just missed poster dunk.
On the court, Garrison Brooks stood ready to guard Noah Dickerson, the Husky forward that gave him a bloody lip and stitches, and chipped at least one tooth earlier in the day.
With 2:57 left, Little entered for Brooks, ending his day before scoring two more for a total of 20 before making his way for the walk-ons to finish out a 81-59 win.
All in all, it was just another day for Carolina Basketball. And for this year’s iteration of the UNC men’s basketball program, an easy victory in a round that had given them fits in recent years.
“Love our toughness, love the edge that our bench gave us today,” Roy Williams said. “And just love the way we kept competing.”
After a blowout loss to Texas A&M in Charlotte in last year’s second round, there was a sense of vindication in the locker room, particularly for the three seniors on this year’s squad.
“We talked about it all summer,” Luke Maye said of the loss to the Aggies. “To lose that way and to have Joel and Theo go out like that was really hard, especially for the guys who felt like it was on us. And, I mean, I feel like it's just a testament to how hard we worked and get back to the spot.”
It had all the trademarks of a UNC win. Doubling up the Huskies on the boards 48-24, the Tar Heels rebounding 48.4 percent of their missed shots. Scoring 38 points in the paint, whipping the ball in transition for quick buckets.
It also featured the welcome return of UNC’s three-point shooting, which had undergone a bit of a cold spell since a win over Wake Forest in mid-February. Since their 16-of-25 performance against the Demon Deacons, entering Sunday’s game, the Tar Heels were shooting 68-of-224 (30.4 percent) from beyond the arc. Against Washington? 9-for-21, good for 42.1 percent, including a 4-7 clip from Coby White and a 3-8 performance from Cameron Johnson.
But the star of the show was Nassir Little, who’s 20 points made him the first non-starter to score at least 20 points in an NCAA Tournament game since Marvin Williams in 2005. His athleticism flew around the arena, smacking layup attempts off back boards, finessing around defenders in Washington’s zone, and even nearly destroying a man’s life with a dunk attempt (he hit the two free throws).
“I just wanted to win, that's it,” Little said. “For us to be as dangerous as we can be, I got to play at a high level.”
For Brooks and Kenny Williams, the two defensive stalwarts are both nursing injuries on the flight back to Chapel Hill. For Williams, it’s pain in the hamstring. No clue what it is, but it still hurt, even after he went back in the game in the second half to guard Jaylen Norwell some more.
“No, it's still tight,” Williams said of his injury post game. “I'll probably do some treatment tonight, and all week honestly.”
As for Brooks, he’s tough, but has a bit of a road ahead of him. He was unable to speak with the media after the game, and will be seeing a doctor to check on his two teeth that got pushed back by an elbow from Noah Dickerson before the Tar Heels leave town. But, in game, he came back and gave UNC a tough defensive presence in post, scoring five points, nabbing five boards and dishing out three assists in just 20 minutes.
“He's a tough kid, and he'll throw some elbows and connect some himself,” Cameron Johnson said. “I don't know who might be on the receiving end of the next one he throws, but it might have some power behind it.”
Now, as the team tore down the velcroed logos across the locker room to take home a souvenirs, and Roy Williams left the number “16” on the big white board in the center of the room, it was time to celebrate. Until midnight, at least.