North Carolina freshman wing Nassir Little was no longer having fun, he admitted Tuesday night.
He had struggled in his first three ACC games, averaging less than five points per game, and shooting less than 30 percent from the floor.
Throughout much of his high school career, Little, who learned how to play basketball in middle school through YouTube, had dominated the competition, and became one of the top prospects in the Class of 2018.
But the success he had experienced in high school did not come as quickly in college. As with most freshman, there’s been a learning curve for Little.
His play has been up and down this season, but the ACC games had particularly been a struggle.
“When you’re not playing well, you tend to stress things too much and over-think,” Little said. “I was playing really hesitant, so I just had to get back to myself and be confident, and just do what I do.”
On Tuesday night against Notre Dame at home, Little had fun again. He scored 11 points, and had 6 rebounds, helping No. 13 UNC defeat Notre Dame 75-69.
“His shot hasn’t been going in for him, and he took it to the basket and made good plays,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “I think he was probably the key to the game.”
After the 21-point loss to unranked Louisville on Saturday — one where almost all of UNC’s top players had off nights — Tuesday’s game against the unranked Fighting Irish was one the Tar Heels had to win.
The Tar Heels are now 3-1 in ACC play, instead of 2-2, and largely because of Little. All of his 11 points came in the game’s final 11 minutes.
He was 5-for-8 from the floor.
“Initially I was focused on trying to get rebounds, play defense, things like that,” Little said. “As I got in a groove in the second half, I started to feel it, and it turned into a huge game.”
For a five minute stretch midway through the second half, Little scored nine of UNC’s 12 points. Each bucket was crucial in a game that was close throughout the second half.
The difference in Little’s game compared to previous ones appeared to be his confidence. He is at his best when he is driving the basketball. When a slower defender was guarding him, he took advantage of it. The more he scored, the more it seemed his confidence grew.
Little’s first bucket came as UNC trailed Notre Dame 52-51, with 10:45 left to play. Notre Dame’s 6-11, 223-pound junior forward Juwan Durham stepped out to guard Little on the perimeter. That turned out to be a mismatch. Little jab stepped and drove baseline past Durham for the easy dunk.
Two minutes later, senior forward Luke Maye split the double team of Notre Dame’s 2-3 zone, forcing Notre Dame forward John Mooney to help out, which left Little unguarded in the paint for wide open slam. That again gave UNC a one-point lead.
On UNC’s next offensive possession, Little grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back up for two points to give the Tar Heels a three-point lead with eight minutes left in the game.
A minute and a half later, Notre Dame had regained the lead. UNC freshman guard Coby White then nailed a 3-pointer to put the Tar Heels up by two points. The Tar Heels got a defensive stop on Notre Dame’s next possession, and Little drove past Mooney to score a layup as he was fouled. His three points made it a five-point game with about six minutes left.
That was the closest Notre Dame would get.
“Everybody is all worried and stuff, but at the end of the day, I just had to find that fun that I had coming in,” Little said.
Little’s performance showed a glimpse of just how good UNC can be if he is also on his game, along with the Tar Heels’ other top players.
UNC graduate senior Cam Johnson, the Tar Heels’ leading scorer, scored 11 points, was 3-for-8 from the field, and 0-for-3 from behind the 3-point line. It was only the second time this season that Johnson did not hit a 3-pointer. The first time was last Saturday against Louisville. Maye, the Tar Heels second-leading scorer, had a double-double Tuesday (14 points, 10 rebounds), but was 6-for-19 from the floor.
“I feel like we can be really dangerous,” White, who led the Tar Heels with 17 points, said. “Tonight, we didn’t even shoot the ball well, and we still gutted it out.
“Me, Nas and Leaky (Black) are going to continue to get better. We’re still learning.”