There have been multiple times this season when North Carolina’s three seniors have carried the team to victory as others were struggling.
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This time, it was the Tar Heels’ three freshmen who stepped up.
Freshmen Nassir Little, Coby White, Leaky Black had their best game collectively, scoring 53 of UNC’s 103 points on Monday. They also combined for 13 rebounds, 11 assists and six steals, and helped No. 11 UNC take down No. 10 Virginia Tech 103-82 at home.
The Tar Heels (15-4, 5-1 ACC) have won three consecutive games, and appear back on track after a devastating 21-point home loss to Louisville a little more than a week ago.
“I talked to them about how hard Virginia Tech was going to play....and told them that we better be able to match that, not expect the home crowd to do it,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.
The Tar Heels did.
White, a 6-5, 185-pound freshman point guard, had 27 points, six assists and four steals. Little, a 6-6, 220-pound forward had a career-high 23 points. He also had six rebounds.
Black, a freshman guard and forward, did not fill up the stat sheet, but he was a big part of the Tar Heels’ 20-2 run that gave the them a 45-31 lead heading into halftime.
The lead was enough that the Hokies (15-3, 4-2) could not catch up.
The Tar Heels shot 54 percent from the floor, the second consecutive game in which they shot 50 percent or better.
Here are five other observations from the game:
1. UNC’s freshmen no longer playing like it
When freshmen Little, White and Black came to UNC in the Summer, they talked about the possibilities and what they could achieve there.
Among their goals, which included winning a national championship in their first year, was making an immediate impact on a team that has the potential to go far in the NCAA tournament.
All three freshmen were in the game during the Tar Heels’ 20-2 run to end the half. Prior to that, the Hokies led the Tar Heels 29-25 with a little more than five minutes left.
Little, Black and White scored the game’s next 14 points, which included four 3-pointers in a three minute stretch. That allowed the Tar Heels to bust the game open.
“It felt good to kind of have that swag about us, you know the three freshmen coming,” Little said. “The stigma about North Carolina and not playing freshmen — I think we was kind of vibing with that and rocking out with how we played.”
Little has scored 11 or more points in each of the last three games after not scoring more than six points in the previous three.
In recent games, the freshmen have provided energy. When a Tar Heel player has made a good play, you can often see White jump up and down and scream in excitement. Little too, but he’s a little lower key.
White’s 27 points was the second-most he has scored in a game this season. He missed his first few shots, but finished strong. He was 5-for-11 from behind the 3-point line, and 9-for-16 from the floor overall.
2. UNC dangerous when 3-point shots are going in
The Tar Heels started the game shooting 1-for-12 from the 3-point line. Then something clicked. They made 14 of their next 18 3’s, and finished 16-for-34 from behind the arc. That Tar Heels’ hot 3-point shooting coincided with their 20-2 run at the end of the half. Five of their last six made field goals in the first half were 3-pointers.
The Tar Heels’ 16 3-pointers were the most they have made this season.
The previous season-high was 13 against Gonzaga on Dec. 15.
When the Tar Heels started hitting their 3-pointers there wasn’t much the Hokies could do to keep up. Even Little, who had made only one 3-pointer in the last 12 games prior to Monday night, was 2-for-3 from behind the 3-point line.
“I’ve said all year we’re good shooters,” Williams said.
The Tar Heels are 10-0 when they hit at least 40 percent of their 3-pointers, and 5-4 when they shoot below 40 percent from 3.
3. Brooks motivated by online comment
UNC sophomore forward Garrison Brooks says he normally does not pay or give attention to Twitter trolls.
But this weekend he had time. When Twitter user @RamsHeel commented that Brooks was “weak to be a 3rd yr (sic),“ adding that he needed to “step up or sit down,” Brooks jokingly responded, “My fault Coach didn’t know you was on Twitter.”
After the game, Brooks said he is motivated by the critics.
“Because I feel like people are negative some times,” Brooks said. “I rarely see it...but if somebody mentions me, I’m going to see it and use it as fuel to the fire.”
“I saw it immediately so I was like, ‘he’s not the coach so I don’t really care,’ but I had a little bit of time on my hands.”
Brooks finished Monday’s game with 12 points and five rebounds in 29 minutes. He made five of his first six shots and was responsible for six of the Tar Heels’ first 13 points.
Williams was complimentary of Brooks. He said his defense helped the Tar Heels. Brooks, who is 6-9, 230-pounds, was responsible for guarding Virginia Tech’s 6-10, 250-pound forward Kerry Blackshear. Blackshear was 6-for-15 from the floor.
Brooks was also in during the Tar Heels’ 20-2 run.
4. Seventh Woods struggling some
For the second consecutive game, UNC junior point guard Seventh Woods has struggled. He played four minutes against Miami on Saturday, and seven minutes against Virginia Tech.
One of his biggest issues has been turnovers. He has eight over his last three games, three on Monday. The turnovers have affected his game.
As a result of Woods’ struggles, White’s minutes have gone up.
In the second half, Black played some point guard when White needed a rest.
In the past, Woods has had trouble with his confidence. UNC senior guard Kenny Williams said he was trying to keep Woods’ spirits high.
“I just told (Seventh), keep playing,” he said. “You can beat them, so beat them.”
Woods has had good games this season, and some big moments. For instance, the 14 points he scored in the Tar Heels’ 103-90 win against Gonzaga. Woods will need to get back to that because some point, the Tar Heels will need him.
White has dealt with an ankle injury this season, and also has had some issues with turnovers.
5. UNC’s 3-point defense still off
Like Miami on Saturday, Virginia Tech started the first half on fire. The Hokies made six of their first seven 3-pointers and led by as much as nine points.
Things changed when the Hokies’ leading scorer, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and their leading assist-man, Justin Robinson, got into foul trouble in the first half and had to come out.
While they were out of the game, UNC went on the 20-2 run.
But Virginia Tech’s 3-point barrage was the result of bad on-ball defense by the Tar Heels. At times, the Hokies would get past their defender, and a Tar Heels player would help out. Then the Hokies would kick it out to an open man for 3, leaving the Tar Heels scrambling to contest the shot.
“I was worried to death about the game because I think that they’re really really good and they showed it the first few minutes,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “Then we went crazy for a while and that was it after that.”
The Hokies eventually cooled off, but still finished the game 13-for-28 from behind the 3-point line.
Fortunately, the Tar Heels were even better.