There was that one moment. Kevin Scott, who at 6-4 was Texas Southern’s tallest starter, was able to shake Isaiah Hicks and fire off a quick 3-pointer, his second of the game. He pounded his chest. North Carolina was down two early.
The moment didn’t last. The Tar Heels scored the next 16 points on their way to a 103-64 win Friday. No. 1 seeds remained forever undefeated in the NCAA tournament, much to Roy Williams’ relief.
“Every coach of the No. 1 always worries like the dickens about it the night before,” Williams said. “It’s something you always think about. … If I’m a 1 seed, let’s just put it off for another year. If I were a 2 seed, I wouldn’t care.”
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The only scary part for North Carolina was Joel Berry turning his right ankle. He went to the locker room. He came back. Disaster averted, as long as the Tar Heels keep him away from the Epsom salts.
With that, another, more unlikely streak remained alive as well. In 27 appearances, Williams has never lost his tournament opener. Of all Williams’ underappreciated virtues at North Carolina, his ability to get out of the first round safely may be the least heralded.
Play in enough tournaments – and this is Williams’ 13th at North Carolina, after 14 at Kansas – and surely fate will catch up with you at some point. Maybe not as a No. 1 seed, as the Tar Heels are this season, the 12th Williams team to earn that spot, but somewhere down the road. For Williams it never has. Not this year, either.
And yes, North Carolina is (and Kansas was) regularly a heavy favorite – none of his teams have ever been worse than a No. 8 seed, which means the basketball committee at least expected all of them to win – but many of Williams’ Hall-of-Fame peers have stumbled at least once (and often more) in that position.
It’s happened to Mike Krzyzewski five times, including twice in the past five years, as a No. 2 and No. 3 seed (with Duke avoiding a loss to 15th-seeded Troy later Friday). Jim Boeheim’s failed to win a game five times, including the famous upset by 15th-seeded Richmond in 1991. Tom Izzo does it every five years.
Williams lost a lot of second-round games at Kansas – five of them, with teams seeded anywhere from first to eighth, but never a first-round game. He’s won two 8-9 games and three 6-11 games and three 4-13 games and two 3-14 games.
Over the past few years, Williams’ teams haven’t made it look easy. It took everything the Tar Heels had to get past Villanova in Kansas City in 2013 (as a No. 8 seed), the same against Providence in San Antonio in 2014 (as a No. 6) and Harvard had a shot to beat 4th-seeded North Carolina at the buzzer in Jacksonville in 2015.
North Carolina won them all. Maybe if the Tar Heels had found a way into the tournament in 2010, they would have struggled to win a game. But they did win their NIT opener that season.
Keeping those two streaks alive represented the most significant developments for North Carolina on Friday. Justin Jackson appears to have rediscovered his shooting stroke, and Berry gave UNC fans everywhere a scare when he went to the locker room after landing awkwardly on his right ankle, but he returned to the bench and even played a few minutes.
Otherwise, the Tar Heels moved on, relatively easily, all things considered. As they always have under Williams at this stage.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock