Luke DeCock

Tar Heels flirt with historic upset, add madness to mild day

This was not the start to the NCAA tournament North Carolina wanted. Other than the win, of course.

These weren't the Tar Heels who tore through the ACC tournament, playing their best defense of the season. These were the old, frustrating Tar Heels whose devotion to the cause was somewhat less than devout – everything they thought they had moved past in Washington.

The Tar Heels flirted with the first 1-16 upset in NCAA history, letting Florida Gulf Coast hang around, up by one at the half. Then they turned on the afterburners to start the second half and played the kind of basketball that made them a No. 1 seed in the first place, winning 83-67.

On the night Roy Williams passed Dean Smith for career wins in the NCAA tournament – 66, behind only Mike Krzyzewski – he mentioned one of his favorite Smithisms (Deanisms?).

“I think you do build your momentum once you get in the tournament,” Williams said. “Coach Smith always believed that. I understood what he was talking about and still believe it to this day.”

Williams had said the same thing in the aftermath of Saturday's ACC championship win over Virginia, and that was not the first time his players had heard it. Far from it. They did manage to prove him right Thursday. Unexpectedly, they started the NCAA tournament with no momentum at all. They ended with quite a bit.

Even the North Carolina players were baffled that, after seeming to get all of their defensive issues out of their system during the ACC tournament, those issues would all recur at the worst possible time.

And then, starting with a quick 5-0 run to start the second half – a Marcus Paige 3-pointer and fast-break layup by Joel Berry – the Tar Heels pulled away to win by 16.

“We definitely built some momentum in the ACC tournament, and then we kind of went backward here,” Brice Johnson said. “We can definitely get back to where we were. We just have to come back with a different mindset. We just have to go and clear our heads and get back to the way we know we can play.

“It was a very frustrating game for all of us. Guys were kind of down about it. At the end of the day, we can do a lot better.”

So for a half, at least, North Carolina provided the drama that had otherwise been lacking at PNC Arena on Thursday. After being quiet for most of the day, things got very nervous, and then very loud, and then very relaxed. At least the hint of a historic upset, however short-lived, injected a little excitement into a day that, to that point, was all mild and no madness.

Oh, to be in Providence in the afternoon, where Duke had to dig deep to fight off UNC Wilmington and Baylor imploded against Yale, all before dinner time. There was none of that here on Thursday, not with Butler pulling away from Texas Tech to win and Virginia easily dismissing Hampton and the Tar Heels, eventually, taking care of business against Florida Gulf Coast.

The highest drama was Tony Bennett's collapse on the Virginia bench, attributed to dehydration and not enough to keep him away from the second half. With Williams, at least, everyone's used to his chronic dizzy spells and it takes something more significant – at Boston College – to really raise alarm. Not so with Bennett, making it a truly scary moment.

But Bennett quickly recovered, and both Virginia and North Carolina moved along, the Cavaliers in somewhat smoother fashion than the Tar Heels.

At least the Tar Heels finished things right. They may have left their momentum at the ACC tournament, but they started building it again in the second half Thursday. As Williams would be the first to tell you, that's how Smith always expected it to go anyway.

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

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