Luke DeCock

Roy Williams, UNC Tar Heels go small, advance in NCAA tournament

UNC’s Brice Johnson blocks a shot by Arkansas’ Alandise Harris on Saturday night during the first half in the third round of the NCAA tournament in Jacksonville, Fla.
UNC’s Brice Johnson blocks a shot by Arkansas’ Alandise Harris on Saturday night during the first half in the third round of the NCAA tournament in Jacksonville, Fla. rwillett@newsobserver.com

When Isaiah Hicks picked up his fourth foul, one of a half-dozen North Carolina players in foul trouble midway through the second half, Marcus Paige was on his way to the scorer's table to replace Nate Britt.

The Tar Heels had gone to a small lineup at times in the first half to deal with Arkansas' pressure defense, and Roy Williams had a decision to make.

“I said, 'Do we want him to go for Isaiah, do we want him to go in for Nate?' I think I told him first, I told him Nate, and then all of a sudden it was another foul on Isaiah,” the North Carolina coach said.

“Go small,” assistant coach Hubert Davis told Williams. Paige replaced Hicks instead, and the newly shrunken lineup immediately generated a 3-point look for Paige in the left corner.

Paige made it, his third of the half, to extend North Carolina's lead on Arkansas to seven. He scored 16 of North Carolina's next 24 points as the Tar Heels turned a four-point lead into a 87-78 win Saturday.

“He said go for Nate, and then Isaiah picked up his fourth right then, and he switched it up,” Paige said. “It was four little guys on the court. We did a good job of handling the pressure. That made it easier, with all guards in the game.”

You don't win as many NCAA tournament games as Dean Smith without a little help. Davis' assist – Williams did not point at him to recognize it, at least not yet – helped Williams to his 65th tournament win, tying his mentor and moving North Carolina along to the second weekend for the first time since 2012.

It was frenetic, sloppy, foul-filled and turnover-ridden, and the Tar Heels lost Kennedy Meeks to a sprained left knee late in the game, which could have considerable gravity down the road, but at least their road continues.

Williams said Friday it's not North Carolina's “exclusive right” to make it at least this far, but the Tar Heels have more often than not. Just not lately. Williams didn't pile up all those tournament wins in the first game alone (although he is 25-0 in that round).

Last week in Greensboro, Williams passed Phog Allen on the all-time victory list. Now, he has has caught up with his mentor in NCAA tournament victories.

“They told me that we had passed or tied Doc Allen, and I didn't realize that, and I didn't realize this about coach Smith,” Williams said. “I really do appreciate those kind of long-standing records.”

There's something poetic about Williams equalling Smith – and having a chance to surpass him next weekend in Los Angeles – at the end of a season that was, for a time, dampened if not overshadowed by Smith's passing. The celebration of his life, the memories shared, the “DES” pins seen elsewhere this week on Larry Brown and Kenny Smith, all of it brought the old coach's presence back to the program in a way that was missing in his final years, when he was unable to be a part of it.

Losing Smith, in some elegiac way, also restored him.

Perhaps this victory will also go some way toward restoring North Carolina basketball. Neither of the previous two early exits was an upset; the Tar Heels hadn't played well enough to earn a better seed. Williams has complained at length about the recruiting difficulties caused by the academic scandal, and he's not figuring out how to assimilate one-and-done players onto his roster like his rival down the road. North Carolina doesn't have any.

The past few years have been a bit of a swoon, by traditional Tar Heel standards, without the ACC titles or NCAA runs that an elite program like North Carolina would expect. This tournament, this team, has a chance to reverse that trend. To an extent, it already has.

“You don't want to be a North Carolina basketball player and have the reputation of not being able to make it through the first weekend of the tournament,” Paige said.

Paige, so tearful after last season's loss to Iowa State, finished with 22 points Saturday, 20 of those coming in the second half. Brice Johnson, who missed the Iowa State game with an injury, had seven points and 13 rebounds Saturday.

“It was really heartbreaking to be knocked out of the tournament that way,” Johnson said. “It feels great right now to be able to move on.”

Traditionally, North Carolina writes the number of teams remaining in the NCAA tournament on the locker-room whiteboard after a victory. A few years ago, after Williams won his 700th career game with an NCAA tournament victory over Villanova in Kansas City, not far from where he spent 15 happy years at Kansas. That night, “700” was written on the board instead of “32.”

They could have written “65” or “750” – Williams hit that as well Saturday – but it was just, simply, “16.” That was the real milestone victory Saturday night. For the first time since 2012, the Tar Heels are in that group.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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