RALEIGH, N.C. – All season long, North Carolina coach Roy Williams and his players have endured questions of whether the Tar Heels have enough intensity and fight to live up to their potential in March.
That’s why the Hall of Fame coach is gaining an extra appreciation for his team now, as the No. 1 seed Tar Heels push their way into the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 with a wear-you-down style.
Brice Johnson had 21 points and 10 rebounds, and North Carolina pulled away from foul-plagued Providence 85-66 in Saturday night’s second round in a familiar fashion. It marked the third straight game, starting with last week’s Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship against Virginia, in which the Tar Heels showed the toughness to take over in the game’s critical second-half sequences.
“We’ve harped every day about getting better, getting better, getting better (at practices), and if we do get better every day, we’ll be playing our best basketball at the end of the year,” Williams said. “I probably think we’ve played our best basketball the entire season in the last couple of weeks.”
Joel Berry II added 15 points for the East Region’s top seed, which found itself in a fight well into the second half against the Friars’ high-scoring duo of Ben Bentil and Big East player of the year Kris Dunn. But the Tar Heels (30-6) stepped up their offensive efficiency, attacked the paint and cashed in at the line in front of a home-state crowd as the fouls piled up for Providence (24-11).
Justin Jackson scored on a drive to start an 8-0 run that broke a 41-all tie, and then Johnson scored six straight points in the 10-0 burst that put the Tar Heels up 17 with 6 1/2 minutes left.
North Carolina shot 61 percent after halftime and 53 percent for the game, and made 19 of 21 free throws – 15 of 16 after halftime.
“We want to play up-and-down basketball because we do have a deep team,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to play your game.”
Dunn had 29 points for the ninth-seeded Friars, though he sat much of the first half with two fouls and picked up his fourth while trying to strip Johnson in the lane with 8:44 left. Bentil fouled out on a rebound attempt with 7:23 left, finishing with 21 points.
Providence shot 40 percent but made 6 of 23 3-pointers and missed nine free throws – costly miscues as the Friars tried to keep pace with the Tar Heels’ deep attack.
“I thought we played really, really hard,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said. “I thought we played together. But you’ve got to make shots, you’ve got to make plays … in this tournament. We just, we didn’t have it.”
Providence earned its first NCAA win since 1997 in the first round against Southern California on a last-second basket and trailed just 34-30 at halftime Saturday before UNC began to pull away.
“You can’t win with depth in the first 10 minutes of the game,” said senior Marcus Paige, who had 12 points as one of five in double figures for UNC. “You have to grind it out.”