When the No. 1 seeded North Carolina Tar Heels walked into the locker room at halftime up by one, there were no smiling faces.
Players had their heads down low and were visibly disappointed, UNC forward Brice Johnson said.
But none more upset than coach Roy Williams.
“He was probably turning pink more than any time I’ve ever seen him,” Johnson said. “Even coach (Hubert) Davis wouldn’t say anything to us at halftime, he was so mad.”
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The Tar Heels (29-6) had come out flat, and Florida Gulf Coast, a 16 seed, which certainly hadn’t played like one, was looking to make history. A 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and the Eagles wanted to be the first.
So they came out firing. FGC shot 60 percent and out-rebounded the Tar Heels in the first half by seven boards.
UNC on the other hand shot 41 percent in the first half. The Tar Heels eventually turned the game around in the second half and won 83-67. But it wasn’t a good feeling.
“We were fortunate to be up one,” Johnson said. “We could have been down a lot more, the way the game was going.”
After winning the ACC tournament, North Carolina had been clicking on all cylinders. They had been playing their best defense all season.
Junior forward Isaiah Hicks said his coaches expected them to come out with the same intensity, that saw them win the ACC tournament.
“We were the ones being reactive instead of being proactive, and you can’t do that if you want to be a better team,” Hicks said. “It just took us a while to get going but once we did we were fine.”
Whatever Williams said to his team at halftime woke them up. The Tar Heel’ energy was different in the second half, when they got out to a quick start with a three from senior guard Marcus Paige.
That started a 25-6 run over the next nine minutes for the Tar Heels, fueled by strong defense especially by Johnson, who finished with 18 points and eight blocks.
After every big block Johnson pinned on the backboard or threw to the second row, and after every “and-1” bucket, he wore a scowl his face, clinch his fists, and screamed.
The UNC crowd at PNC Arena yelled with him.
And as the game progressed, even as UNC pulled away from Florida Gulf Coast, he got meaner and meaner.
And UNC never looked back.
But for one half, it sure didn’t look so good.
“One versus 16 gets so much attention. Perhaps there was a little stress, everybody thinking it was going to be easy,” Williams said. “Second half we got into it defensively a lot better and still didn’t play nearly as well as we wanted to.”
On Thursday, Williams moved into second place behind Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski in all-time NCAA tournament wins with 66, passing Dean Smith.
Williams said he won’t use this game much to prepare for the next.
“We’re still here...and we’re happy about that,” Williams said. “Today’s game won’t have anything to do with the second game. I think you build your momentum once you get in a tournament.”
“Coach Smith always believed that and I understood what he was talking about and I still believe it till this day. So hopefully we’ll have a little better momentum that what we had today.”