North Carolina is off to the NCAA tournament East regional semifinals after an 85-66 victory against Providence on Saturday night. Lots of stories here …
-Night began with Roy Williams telling his guys to “wake up” but ended with a celebration.
-Tar Heels said they heard plenty from Providence but UNC spoke with its actions.
-Luke DeCock on Brice Johnson, who has been at his best in the tournament.
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-Kris Dunn got his but Justin Jackson made it difficult on him in key second-half stretch.
-Marcus Paige might miss PNC Arena but feeling might not be mutual for its primary occupant.
-Plenty of tremendous photos from the game right here.
-Take a time-lapse look at Brice Johnson’s memorable block late in the first half.
And now for some day-after thoughts, notes and quotes:
1. Would it be wise for anyone to question the Tar Heels toughness at this point?
Because that's what Providence did, apparently, before the game – both on Friday and Saturday, UNC players said. No one would really go on the record and say exactly what the Friars were saying – Marcus Paige said that would take some of the fun away from talking trash, which, sure, is an understandable point – but the subtext was this: the Tar Heels felt like Providence was challenging their toughness and their manhood. There was some talking, apparently, when the teams passed each other on Friday between practices at PNC Arena. And more talking before the game on Saturday. And then during it. Said Theo Pinson, the UNC sophomore: “That's fun to me. I mean, when you start talking to me, I start talking back. I'm a talker. That makes the game even more fun for me.” Isaiah Hicks might have said it best, though: “Nobody's going to punk us. We ain't soft.” UNC showed it, again, on Saturday night. Among things that would really surprise me during the rest of the NCAA tournament, another team openly questioning UNC's toughness would be up there. The Tar Heels have proven they're past the point of that being a problem now.
2. Brice Johnson has ascended to a higher level in the NCAA tournament.
Remember those questions that long surrounded Johnson about his consistency and his effort? Seems like a long time ago now. Here are Johnson's numbers in two NCAA tournament games: 39 points, 17 rebounds, 14-of-20 from the field, 11-for-13 at the free throw line, 10 blocked shots (eight of them against Florida Gulf Coast in the first round). According to kenpom.com Johnson's average offensive rating – which is a statistic that basically measures a player's scoring efficiency – is 145 in two NCAA tournament games. That's Johnson's highest offensive rating in consecutive games since UNC played Appalachian State and UNC-Greensboro late December. When Johnson plays as much as he has in the two tournament games – 32 minutes in both – and when he's as effective as he has been, UNC hasn't lost this season. You don't want to say the Tar Heels are unbeatable amid those circumstances, but they're a lot closer to it than, say, when Johnson isn't scoring as effectively or when foul trouble limits his playing time.
3. UNC closes out the game with its small lineup – but wins it with its more traditional one.
This is the lineup Roy Williams had on the court when the Tar Heels really took control of the game: Joel Berry, Marcus Paige, Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks and Brice Johnson. That lineup, which is probably UNC's best, played together from about the 8 ½-minute mark in the second half to when six minutes remained. During that stretch UNC's lead went from 59-50 to 67-51, and the Tar Heels essentially put the game away during that span. From there Williams went small, subbing out Johnson, who had four fouls, for Theo Pinson. That lineup -- Berry, Paige, Jackson, Pinson and Hicks -- played until 50 seconds remained, when Williams put in the walk-ons. The lead during that span went from 67-51 to 84-65. What does this information tell us? That UNC seized control that it wouldn't relinquish with its best lineup, and that its small lineup was good enough to seal the game during the five minutes in which it played together. One thing is clear enough: When Johnson and Hicks are on the court together there's not a lot other teams can do to stop UNC from scoring inside.
-Roy Williams said on UNC's senior night that this might be his favorite team of all time, just because of everything it has represented amid a difficult time for him and his program. Now Williams' appreciation is rising.
“I've become even closer myself to having a greater appreciation for this team,” he said after the game on Saturday night. “I mean, after the first night here, everybody said, well, which North Carolina is going to show up? Hey, we were pretty good the second half of that game, and the guys we were playing weren't chopped liver.
“So I'm getting more and more confident with my team every day. I always write three things every day on the board. Today this is what I wrote down: Make our defense the biggest factor in the game. And we were pretty good.”
(Speaking of UNC's defense, Providence shot 40.4 from the floor. It was the 27th consecutive game in which UNC has held an opponent to less than 45 percent shooting from the floor.)
-About Brice Johnson's memorable blocked shot late in the first half – one that landed in the stands at PNC Arena. Here's what Johnson said about it:
“I needed to get some energy in the building. It was kind of dead at the time. That's the only reason I did that.”
It certainly seemed to energize the Tar Heels. The game was tied at that point and Johnson's block help establish some momentum.
“I think that helped us get into halftime on a positive note,” Marcus Paige said. “We wanted to win the last four minutes. We always talk about that at the last media timeout, because we were kind of struggling and playing their game. It was kind of a gritty, grind-it-out, slow tempo, a lot of fouls called. It wasn't the game that we wanted to play. So once they made some of those plays we kind of got back into what we wanted to do and closed the half strong, knowing that we had a lot to give in the second half.”
-Some Kirsch nuggets, courtesy UNC basketball spokesman Steve Kirschner:
-UNC has won 30 games for the 12th time, including six seasons under head coach Roy Williams. The Tar Heels won 30 or more games in 1946 under Ben Carnevale; 1957 under Frank McGuire; 1982, 1987 and 1993 under Dean Smith; 1998 under Bill Guthridge; and 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2016 under Roy Williams.
-UNC has now won 29 consecutive NCAA tournament games in North Carolina.
-UNC is 22-1 this season when it scores at least 10 fast break points. Had 20 against Providence.
-Tar Heels are also 22-1 when it scores at least 40 points in the paint. Had 46 against Providence.
-And UNC is 22-1 when it scores at least 80 points.
-Marcus Paige played for the final time at PNC Arena. He made 20 of his 39 3-point attempts there.
-Paige, meanwhile, is the second ACC player with 1,700 points, 500 assists, 350 rebounds, 275 3-pointers and 200 steals. The other: Duke's Jason Williams.