Texas Southern had the Ocean of Soul, its loud and spirited band, which filled this place with enough rhythm to make spectators shimmy in their seats, and the Tigers had oversized heart, too, a lot of it personified by their undersized 5-foot-7, 150-pound freshman point guard.
North Carolina, well – North Carolina had everything else. The Tar Heels’ opening game of the NCAA tournament, a mismatched affair between one of the richest schools in college athletics and one that lacks the resources power-conference schools take for granted, wasn’t supposed to be close.
And it wasn’t. UNC’s 103-64 victory was decided by halftime, if not long before.
Essentially, it was decided when these teams stepped onto the court at Bon Secours Wellness Arena. No. 16 seed Texas Southern, the champion of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, faced a considerable task, after all.
Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, no No. 16 seed had never defeated a No. 1 seed. That didn’t appear likely to change on Friday, what with the Tigers’ on-court deficiencies, and their lack of size – their lack of talent, relative to UNC.
They arrived in Greenville as the worst 3-point shooting team in the NCAA tournament field. They were also the worst defensive rebounding team in the tournament, and those two things – lack of shooting and an inability to rebound – doomed them from the start.
And yet Texas Southern had hope, anyway. The day before, Demontrae Jefferson, the team’s 5-7 point guard, said he really believed that the impossible was possible. On the other side of the room, Zach Lofton, the SWAC Player of the Year, spoke with confidence about his team’s chances.
And then the game began, and the stark differences between these teams became clearer. One was obvious enough just by sight: UNC (28-7) wore its usual home white uniforms, some of the most iconic in college basketball, adorned with the Nike “Jump Man” logo near the chest.
Texas Southern (23-12), meanwhile, wore jerseys made by Russell Athletic. They wouldn’t have been out of place had they been found hanging in a locker inside an old Texas YMCA. Another difference: Texas Southern’s radio broadcast crew consisted of one man, calling the game by himself.
Seven seconds after it started, UNC, which advanced to play against No. 8 seed Arkansas on Sunday in the second round led after Isaiah Hicks scored on an easy layup. It was an omen, indeed, for most things came easily for the Tar Heels, especially after the competitive portion of the game ended.
It lasted only about 3½ minutes. From there, after Texas Southern had valiantly tied the score at 10, UNC went on a 20-4 run during the next six minutes. Again the Tigers, hopeful as they were, admirably cut their deficit to nine points, but the Tar Heels closed the first half on a 21-5 run.
In the second half UNC’s margin was never narrower than 26 points. Outside the victory the good news, for the Tar Heels, was that Justin Jackson, the junior forward who earned ACC Player of the Year honors, broke out of his recent shooting funk.
Jackson entered the NCAA tournament having missed 40 of his past 60 attempts from the field. By halftime, he’d scored 19 of his 21 points, and made all five of his 3-pointers. It was, perhaps, the sort of performance he needed to rid himself whatever had ailed him in UNC’s past four games.
Jackson was one of five UNC players who scored in double-figures. Hicks finished with 17, and Kennedy Meeks 13. UNC made 51 percent of its shots and held Texas Southern to 36.7 percent shooting – a positive sign for the Tar Heels, who are seeking greater defensive consistency.
Jackson and UNC’s other starters watched the final six minutes from the bench. Their work was done. UNC coach Roy Williams, preparing his team for the grind of the NCAA tournament, went deep into his bench, and did so early.
Nine UNC players received at least 10 minutes of playing time. Nobody among them played for more than 24 minutes. UNC coach Roy Williams emptied his bench, and called for the walk-ons, with a little less than four minutes remaining.
Moments later, Kanler Coker, a senior guard who plays sparingly, scored the Tar Heels’ 101st point on a reverse layup that had his teammates looking up at the video board to see a replay. By then the result had been long decided. The Ocean of Soul played on, belting out a loud, brassy tune, while the Tar Heels marched on.