GREENVILLE, S.C. – There were no butterflies in North Carolina’s pregame locker room on Friday. No mindless pacing, no anxious twiddling of thumbs. For a team intent on charging back to the national championship game, the NCAA Tournament’s first round matchup with Texas Southern was more of a springboard than a way to settle in to March Madness.
In UNC’s scouting report, Roy Williams made a note for his players to try to build momentum. It applied for the game against the Tigers, but it was also intended for the next several weeks. Dean Smith believed a team builds momentum in each tournament, and Williams is no different. The Maui Invitational, the ACC regular season and the ACC Tournament all reside in the long ago past.
Before the Tar Heels tipped off on Friday, Joel Berry shared one final reminder for what led the Tar Heels to this point: “Let’s remember our ultimate goal and that’s to get back to where we want to be, and to do that, it starts today.”
Where they want to be is on the court on the first Monday night in April, but there’s a long road to navigate between Greenville and Phoenix. Any slip up along the way and the Tar Heels will be back in Chapel Hill. It was that recognition that prompted an early onslaught against Texas Southern, as UNC paired together runs of 16-0 and 14-0 to take a 52-27 lead into halftime, marking the program’s third-largest halftime lead in NCAA Tournament history.
The Tar Heels averaged a season-high 1.34 points per possession, doubled up the Tigers 54-27 on the backboards, scored a season-high 29 second-chance points and held Mike Davis’s squad to 36.7 percent shooting.
“Coach always says to respect the opponent, no matter how much you think you might beat them, so I think it was big for us to come out and play like that,” said ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson, who led all scorers with 21 points and made five 3-pointers.
Williams was fiery as ever on the sidelines, preaching to his players to not look at the scoreboard and instead focus on executing for 40 minutes. Make the right play and play with tenacity on defense to utilize the opportunity to develop the proper mindset for the tough games ahead.
“Of course you glance at it every now and then, but you’ve just got to keep playing,” Kennedy Meeks said. “I think we did a great job of staying focused and listening to detail. We had a couple of lapses, but overall, I think we had a good defensive game.”
The Tar Heels looked the part of a No. 1 seed on Friday, dismissing their opening round opponent with an ease that has become rare in the parity-driven NCAA Tournament.
“We’re not sitting back and taking it easy, because we didn’t finish business last year,” Nate Britt said.
And so there were no nerves and no butterflies at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena. At least not in the Tar Heels locker room.