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No. 1 North Carolina overcomes sluggish start to defeat No. 16 seeded Iona 88-73

UNC battles Iona in NCAA Tournament action

Check out photos from the UNC Tar Heels' first round NCAA Tournament game against Iona Friday, March 22, 2019.
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Check out photos from the UNC Tar Heels' first round NCAA Tournament game against Iona Friday, March 22, 2019.

Only once in the history of the NCAA tournament has a No. 1 seed been upset by a No. 16 seed. Virginia lost to UMBC in 2018.

For at least one half, it appeared North Carolina might be the second. The top-seeded Tar Heels trailed by five points at halftime after playing one of their worst halves of the season.

When the halftime buzzer sounded, North Carolina coach Roy Williams threw his hands in the air and walked briskly back to the locker room.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams taks about the difference in the first and second halves after his Tar Heels struggled early in their win against Iona in first round NCAA Tournament action Friday night, March 22, 2019.

But in the second half, the Tar Heels handled their business. They retook the lead after starting the second half on a 18-5 run and never looked back, winning 88-73 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

North Carolina graduate senior Cam Johnson led the Tar Heels with 21 points, scoring 16 in the second half. Freshman forward Nassir Little had 19 points in 17 minutes, and senior forward Luke Maye added 16 points.

No. 1 seeds are now 139-1 against No. 16 seeds.

Williams is now 29-0 in NCAA tournament openers at Kansas and North Carolina.

When asked did he think his team felt the pressure of being a No. 1 seed, Williams said, “I think so.”

“And I think UMBC last year made it a little more pressure,” Williams said. “And it’s part of the game, and I understand that and told them that.

“But if you’re a tough competitor and you invest yourself into the game, you’re not just worried about the score; you want to be concerned with how you’re playing.”

North Carolina (28-6), the top seed in the Midwest Regional, will face No. 9 seeded Washington (27-8) in the second round on Sunday at approximately 2:40 p.m. on CBS. Washington, which won the Pac-12 regular season title, beat No. 8 seeded Utah State 78-61 on Friday.

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North Carolina’s Nassir Little (5) dives after a loose ball under Iona’s Asante Gist (3) during the second half on Friday, March 22, 2019 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Little scored 19 points. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

It wasn’t a pretty first half for the the Tar Heels. They started the game cold, missing 16 of their first 22 shots. Iona led for the majority of the first half, and took a 38-33 lead at halftime. UNC’s three seniors — Kenny Williams, Maye and Johnson — couldn’t get going. They were a combined 6 of 22 in the first half.

“Our offense was not very good,” coach Williams said. “The only offense we had in the first half was Nassir taking the ball to the basket.”

As a team the Tar Heels shot 33 percent from the floor. They also committed five first-half turnovers, which the Gaels converted into seven points.

Iona (17-16), a team that lives and dies by the 3, was 10 for 21 from behind the 3-point line in the first half. But the Gaels cooled off in the second half, and the Tar Heels began to heat up.

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North Carolina’s Cameron Johnson (13) drives to the basket against Iona’s E.J. Crawford (2) during the second half on Friday, March 22, 2019 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Johnson lead North Carolina with 21 points in their 88-73 victory over Iona. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Johnson started the second half with a 3-pointer to cut the Gaels’ lead to two points. Roy Williams clapped on the sideline and clenched his fists urging his team on.

The Tar Heels continued their run. A Johnson 3-pointer from the left corner gave the Tar Heels an 11-point lead with 13:10 left in the game.

Two minutes later, Little made a layup while being fouled, increasing the Tar Heels’ lead to 16 points. As he got off the ground he screamed “Let’s go.”

“I just look at what the team needs,” Little said. “I felt like early on we was taking too many outside shots. And before the game Coach and all the coaching staff was telling me to be aggressive and get easy buckets on the inside and play inside-out. I think by doing that, opened up a lot of things in the second half.”

The Tar Heels shot 63 percent from the floor in the second half and cruised to victory.

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