RALEIGH, N.C. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams is a believer that games are not lost in the first half.
And technically, the Tar Heels weren’t losing at halftime -- although their 41-40 advantage over No. 16 seed Florida Gulf Coast certainly felt like it.
It looked like a similar pattern that occurred in several of the Heels’ losses this season. They were ahead by eight at home against Duke and lost 74-73; up 15 at Notre Dame and lost 80-76; up 16 at Northern Iowa and lost 71-67.
The partisan UNC crowd at PNC Arena sensed it. Seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson did, too, which is why they made sure this was not the way they’d go out. Carolina’s 83-67 victory Thursday doesn’t reflect the anxiety FGCU caused.
Paige, who finished with 10 points, hit a 3-pointer to start the second half and roughly 80 percent of the crowd clad in Carolina blue became engaged in a way they rarely are in home games at the Dean E. Smith Center. They cheered as if the Tar Heels were trailing in the game.
Johnson, who had a game-high 18 points, was as active defensively as he has been all season, blocking a career–high eight shots to set a tone. After allowing the Eagles to shoot 60 percent in the first half -- which bested Maryland’s 56 percent for the best by an opponent -- Carolina clamped down and FGSU made just 2 of 13 attempts to start the second half.
The Heels breathed a collective sigh of relief as they advanced. They likely could get away with playing so poorly defensively simply because of being so close to home.
The Tar Heels entered the game owning a 31-1 record in NCAA tournament games played in the state of North Carolina. Their only loss came against Penn in 1979, in what was infamously known around the state as “Black Sunday,” when Duke and NC State were also eliminated on the same day.
But the Heels also know they won’t be around very long in the NCAA tournament with more efforts like their first half Thursday.