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What UNC learned about itself in the Las Vegas Invitational, and why that’s important now

North Carolina wanted to see how it stacked up against some of the top teams with its trip to the Las Vegas Invitational over Thanksgiving break.

Two of its potential opponents — No. 11 Michigan State and No. 17 UCLA — were ranked. Its other opponent, Texas, although not ranked, was talented also.

By Friday afternoon, though, UNC got its answer. It was good, but not good enough. Texas beat UNC 92-89 on Thursday. And Michigan State, which beat UCLA 87-67 on Thursday, beat Texas 78-68 in the Invitational’s championship game on Friday.

UNC beat UCLA 94-78 in the tournament’s consolation game.

But the two-game tournament gave the Tar Heels an opportunity to learn a lot about themselves. Against Texas, the Tar Heels (6-1) learned that it is critical that they take care of the ball in order to beat the country’s most talented teams. UNC turned it over 17 times on Thursday, but only six times on Friday.

Against No. 17 UCLA on Friday night, the Tar Heels learned that defense can win them ball games.

“We didn’t cure the world,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We didn’t cure cancer. We just played better.”

He added that they were much more aggressive in this game. Freshman Coby White scored 19 points and had 8 assists against UCLA, after scoring 33 against Texas.

In the two tournament games, White averaged 26 points per game, 5.5 assists, and shot 11-for-17 from behind the 3-point line.

“I feel like it just takes confidence,” White said. “We played against two really good teams, and I performed well against them. So I feel like I should take confidence, and just continue to be me and just help the team, whatever I got to do to win games.”

UCLA got off to a strong start, making nine of its first 11 shots, and taking a 20-11 lead after six minutes of play. While UNC did manage to slow UCLA some, it still trailed 46-41 at halftime.

The Tar Heels had allowed the Bruins to shoot 52 percent from the floor in the first half, and take 17 free throw attempts.

But the Tar Heels turned up the pressure in the second half. They threw double-teams and traps at the Bruins and forced them to turn it over. They also forced the Bruins into difficult shots. In the first two minutes of the second half, UNC graduate wing Cam Johnson scored seven consecutive points on three Tar Heel possessions to tie the game at 48, which took the momentum away from the Bruins.

“It’s good to face some adversity,” Johnson said. “We came out and punched Texas in the face and they responded, and it got to us. We came out against UCLA down a little bit, and we learned our lesson. We fought back this time.”

The Tar Heels took their first lead of the game, 52-51, four minutes into the second half, after senior forward Luke Maye hit a jump shot. The two teams battled back and forth for a few minutes, and UCLA regained the lead 62-60.

But with 12 minutes left to play, freshman forward Nassir Little got into the lane and dunked over 6-10, 236-pound UCLA forward Jalen Hill. The dunk not only elicited ooo’s and ahhh’s from the crowd, but it sparked a 16-2 run from the Tar Heels, and gave them the lead for good.

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North Carolina’s Nassir Little celebrates after dunking against UCLA during the second half Friday, Nov. 23, 2018, in Las Vegas. Chase Stevens AP

“I think that dunk really set the tone for us in the game,” Little, who finished with 14 points, said. “Just the energy after that play was different. Plays like that just bring everybody up. And I think once we went off that, we never went back down. We just kept pushing the lead from there.”

Before Little’s big second half, he struggled in the first 20 minutes. He was 2-for-5 from the floor and had two fouls.

“Nassir was so much better in the second half,” Williams said. “I screamed at him in the first half, probably louder and longer and with more energy than he’s ever been screamed at in his life, because he was just standing there watching what was going on. But I thought he gave us a huge lift in the second half.”

After the game, Little gave Williams a hug.

“I was just thankful,” Little said of the moment. “Thankful for him coaching me. Even though I’m young, even though I make mistakes, thankful for him having me out there in crunch time when the game is tied and trusting me to make plays.”

The Bruins shot 38 percent from the floor in the second half. The Tar Heels also scored 13 points off the Bruins’ six second-half turnovers. The Tar Heels’ performance in the second half is how they want to play going forward.

Three of UNC’s next four opponents will come against teams currently ranked top 10 in the country.

UNC will face No. 9 Michigan on Wednesday in Ann Arbor. On Dec. 15, it will play No. 3 Gonzaga at home. And on Dec. 22, UNC will play No. 10 Kentucky in Chicago.

“It was a big game for us,” Williams said. “It wouldn’t have been nice for us to leave here with two losses, but I’ve done that before and it’s been alright.”

Williams said there are still some things he’ll continue to relay to his team before the next few games.

“Taking care of the basketball, you can’t be soft, you can’t turn it over because you’re afraid,” Williams said. “You’ve got to do a better job of boxing out. Guys who can shoot and have great reputations, they should make some.”

Because the Las Vegas Invitational was only a taste of what’s to come.

Alexander, 919-829-4822; @jonmalexander

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