At halftime Joel Berry, the North Carolina sophomore guard, figured he knew what was coming – that UNC coach Roy Williams would walk into the locker room and “get on us and start yelling.”
That sounded about right to Theo Pinson, the Tar Heels’ sophomore forward.
“I’m sure everybody thought coach was going to come in, rip into us and stuff like that,” he said.
Williams didn’t, though. At least not immediately.
Instead he went over where the Tar Heels had gone wrong and what they had to do better, and UNC responded with a strong second-half start that carried it to an 83-67 victory on Thursday night in the first round of the NCAA tournament at PNC Arena.
Afterward there was a feeling a relief inside the Tar Heels’ locker room – a sense of what-took-so-long. UNC (29-6) trailed through the first 4 ½ minutes before pulling away for an 11-point lead, one that the 16th-seeded Eagles (21-14) nearly erased by halftime, when UNC led 41-40.
The Tar Heels knew the history. They were well aware that no No. 1 seed had ever lost against a No. 16 and yet they knew Florida Gulf Coast’s past, too.
“I’ve seen them play the last couple of years,” Brice Johnson, UNC’s senior forward, said afterward. “They had a highlight reel one year where they were called ‘Dunk City’ and all this and that.”
That was in 2013, when Florida Gulf Coast became the first No. 15 seed to reach a regional semifinal. It appeared the Eagles might have some magic left in them during the first half, too, when they rallied from that 11-point deficit and closed the first half on a 13-4 run that made it a one-point game.
While Florida Gulf Coast entered halftime hopeful UNC arrived back in its locker room wondering what had happened – especially to its defense. So strong and stout during the ACC tournament, the Tar Heels allowed Florida Gulf Coast to shoot 60 percent during the first half.
The Eagles at halftime also had more rebounds than UNC (21-14) and more points in the paint (22-16).
“I don’t know what happened to us,” said Isaiah Hicks, the UNC junior forward who finished with 12 points and four rebounds. “We just had a few moments where we just looked horrible. You know, we were just doing horrible.”
Williams was more blunt: “It’s one of the worst halves we’ve played all year long,” he said.
Which is why his players expected him to come in yelling and screaming and exuding intensity, which is a characteristic the Tar Heels lacked during the first 20 minutes. Williams, though, surprised his team with his control at halftime.
The scene was almost … calm?
“I wouldn’t say calm,” Hicks said with a smile. “You had a few moments where voices were raised and stuff.”
Whatever the delivery method, the Tar Heels received Williams’ message. They began the second half with the kind of edge and attitude they’d lacked in the first, when Johnson acknowledged the team “played very flat.”
Marcus Paige, the senior guard, began the second half with a long 3-pointer from the top of the key. Moments later, after a defensive stop, Berry beat the defense in transition for a layup that brought UNC supporters to their feet.
It was precisely the kind of start the Tar Heels were seeking. Less than three minutes into the half, after Justin Jackson’s 3-pointer, UNC’s lead was back to 11. About six minutes later it had grown to 20, and Florida Gulf Coast’s first half success was growing into a distant memory.
UNC played with better intangibles in the second half. More effort. More intensity.
Williams also made a key strategic adjustment, too, and changed the way the Tar Heels defended screens. In the first half players tried to hedge off of screens, and the Eagles exploited UNC’s inability to keep up with players who cut to the basket.
In the second half UNC’s post players remained back, closer to the basket, when the Eagles attempted to create space by screening. The change allowed the Tar Heels to continue to occupy space in the lane and Johnson, who finished with 18 points and seven rebounds benefited, in particular.
He blocked a career-high eight shots – six of them coming in the second half, after that defensive adjustment. He punctuated some of those blocks the way he did after some of his dunks and layups: with loud, emotive screams that seemed to energize his teammates.
“He’s an emotional dude,” said Paige, who finished 10 points and six assists and was one of five players to score in double figures. “And I was just like, ‘Relax, man – you’re good.’ So that’s just how he is, though.
“He’s pretty intense and he’s outwardly emotional.”
Eventually Johnson’s teammates found their intensity, too, after what was among one of their worst halves of the season. UNC finished with a 20-0 advantage in fast break points – 13 of those coming after halftime. The Eagles shot 30.3 percent in the second half after shooting 60 percent in the first.
The Tar Heels admitted afterward that they’d played with some tightness, some nerves, early on.
“Ugly,” Johnson said of the scene at halftime. “We didn’t play worth anything in the first half.”
It was a different story in the second half, after UNC discovered what had been missing.
NCAA Tournament in Raleigh
No.9 Butler 71, No. 8 Texas Tech 61
No. 1 Virginia 81, No. 16 Hampton 45
No. 1 UNC 83, No. 16 Florida Gulf Coast 67
No. 8 USC 69, No. 9 Providence 70
No. 9 Butler vs. No. 1 Virginia
No. 1 UNC vs. No. 9 Providence