North Carolina’s 25–6 run over the first 8:30 of the second half put away any hope that history would be made in Raleigh, but the Tar Heels may have some concerns after a difficult first half in their 83–67 win over Florida Gulf Coast on Thursday. Senior forward Brice Johnson anchored a blistering start to the second half to keep the Heels from becoming the first No. 1 seed to ever lose in the first round in front of a raucous home crowd just 27 miles from campus. The win showcased some of the best and worst that Carolina has to offer. Their usual breakneck pace on offense and Johnson’s tenacious interior defense withered the Eagles as soon as the second half started, but a host of defensive lapses in the first half kept the game unnecessarily close at half.
The No. 16 Eagles, three years removed from their magical run to the Sweet 16, pulled to within one point at halftime after making nine of 11 their last eleven shots to end the first half. But that energy disappeared within the first minute of the second half as North Carolina overwhelmed the smaller, thinner and presumably tired Eagles both inside and from the perimeter.
Why it matters
The second half was a prime exhibition of why some pundits have North Carolina winning the NCAA tournament. Johnson, the runner-up for ACC player of the year, finished with 18 points, seven rebounds and an astounding eight blocks, but it was his post play that prevented FGCU from keeping the game close. After the Eagles succeeded with a series of interior passes and close-range baskets in the first half, Johnson and junior forward Kennedy Meeks locked down the post to keep the Eagles to just 27 second-half points. Johnson’seight blocks set a North Carolina record for an NCAA tournament game.
Florida Gulf Coast’s one-point deficit at halftime was due primarily to strong interior play and effective finishing near the basket. The Eagles entered halftime shooting 60.0% from the floor and 11 points from burly sophomore forward Antravious Simmons, a reserve who averaged only seven points per game all season. It was a surprise that the Eagles thrived against North Carolina’s large lineup early, sinking nine of their last eleven shots of the opening 20 minutes and outrebounding the Heels in the first half. The Heels’ interior defense wasn’t considered a weakness entering the tournament, but surrendering 40 first-half points (16 in the restricted area) in the opening 20 minutes was troubling. Johnson’s standout second half may have mitigated those worries, but it was hardly the mark of a No. 1 team to be exploited so seamlessly.
North Carolina will take on the winner of No. 8 seed USC and No. 9 Providence on Saturday afternoon.