With a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line Sunday afternoon in Columbus as part of the NCAA Tournament’s Second Round, the top-seeded Tar Heels flexed their collective muscles in an 81-59 victory over the No. 9 seed Washington Huskies.
The win gives UNC (29-6) its first Sweet Sixteen appearance since winning the national title in 2017, after losing in the Second Round to Texas A&M last season.
Unlike Friday’s opening round game against No. 16 seed Iona—a game the Tar Heels trailed at halftime—UNC came out strong right from the tip against the PAC-12’s regular season champions on Sunday.
Washington’s identity revolves around its aggressive zone defense employed by head coach Mike Hopkins, a longtime Syracuse assistant under Hall-of-Famer Jim Boeheim.
The Tar Heels have continually found success against Boeheim’s Syracuse teams in recent years during the ACC regular season, and this game against the Huskies (27-9) was no different.
By exploiting the holes in the middle of the zone, head coach Roy Williams’ squad was able to create plenty of open looks and gain a huge rebounding advantage that helped them hold the lead from wire-to-wire.
Senior wing Cameron Johnson said that strategy helped the Tar Heels turn a nine-point halftime lead into a runaway blowout after the break.
“The key today was getting the ball to the middle,” Johnson said. “The middle was the soft spot.
“They were covering the wings and the perimeter pretty well,” he added. “And once we got it inside, it was basically a 2-1-1 [zone] for an easy jump shot or a dump down [pass]. And I think we exploited that a lot more in the second half than we did in the second half.”
Leading the way for the Tar Heels were big performances from senior forward Luke Maye and freshman point guard Coby White–and yet another huge game from White’s freshman classmate Nassir Little.
Maye had 20 points and 14 rebounds for his 15th double-double of the season, while White hit four three-pointers in the first half to help UNC pull away early on and ended the day with 17 points in total.
Little was the spark plug off the bench once again for the Tar Heels—tying Maye for the team lead with 20 points and adding seven rebounds of his own.
Johnson added 13 points to represent the fourth Tar Heel in double figures, as those four players combined to score all but 11 of UNC’s points.
As a result, the team will continue to play on in the season’s biggest event searching for the seventh NCAA Tournament title in program history.
For Roy Williams, this will be his 10th Sweet Sixteen appearance in his 16 years in charge of the Tar Heels.
“I know who we play next, and I know where that is,” Williams told reporters after the game. “And that’s about it. Because I really do try to live in the moment and coach that game. But I’m very pleased with what we’ve done to get to this stage.”
The Tar Heels will move on to face No. 5 seed Auburn on Friday in the Sweet Sixteen, a team that has won 10 consecutive games–including the SEC Tournament championship. Tip-off time for that game has yet to be determined.
- Through two games of this year’s NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels have out-rebounded their opponents 100-50. They grabbed 48 on Sunday compared to just 24 for Washington.
- UNC is 17-1 this season when Nassir Little has at least 10 points.
- Sophomore forward Garrison Brooks left the game midway through the first half after receiving an elbow to the face from Washington forward Noah Dickerson. Brooks suffered a lacerated lip, lost one tooth and had another one broken–but returned to the game to start the second half.
- The injury bug continued to bite UNC in the second half, however, when senior guard Kenny Williams left with a hamstring issue after a steal in the opening minute of the period. He, too, would ultimately return to the game.
Cover photo via Todd Melet