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Little turns in big performance for UNC in win

Notre Dame North Carolina Basketball-4
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North Carolina's Kenny Williams, right, reaches in on Notre Dame's TJ Gibbs as Prentiss Hubb (3) looks for the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

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By PATRICK MASON
Sports Writer

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

CHAPEL HILL — Nassir Little needed 11 minutes to steal his groove back.

“It was just a matter of time,” Little said. “Everybody was just waiting for me to do what I do.”

The North Carolina freshman showed off flashes of his budding potential in the second half of the No. 13 Tar Heels’ 75-69 win over visiting Notre Dame on Tuesday. It was the type of performance that he had been hoping to unlock all season.

Little scored 11 points and added six rebounds while playing a crucial role in the second half. He scored all of his points in the final 11 minutes. Little entered at the game with 11:37 left and a 51-50 lead. He left the court with 28 seconds remaining after six lead changes, one of which happened thanks to his dunk after he shook a defender along the baseline.

It was his athleticism that created mismatches against a Fighting Irish team that sagged down the stretch. Notre Dame was coming off an exhausting win over Boston College on Saturday where it had just six players available for the game.

For Little, it was the first time in four ACC games where he scored in double figures after scoring six, two and six points, respectively, against Pitt, N.C. State and Louisville. Yet on Tuesday, Little shot 5-for-8 from the floor.

Coach Roy Williams noted the freshman’s solid play, and sees his team playing better when Little is contributing.

“I think he was probably the key to the game,” Williams said. “Nassir made two or three big baskets for us. He took the ball to the basket.”

Little was a high school star who led his Orlando Christian Prep team to back-to-back state championships during his junior and senior seasons. He was named the Central Florida player of the year, and picked up MVP honors during last year’s McDonald’s All-American game.

Early-season projections had him as a sure-fire, one-and-done talent that would help the Tar Heels battle in the conference. But through the team’s first three ACC games, Little didn’t make much of an impact.

During some big-stage non-conference tests Little struggled, too. He posted four points against Michigan, seven against Gonzaga and four one week later against Kentucky. Averaging around 19 minutes per game and coming off the bench, Little said he had to find ways to get the feel of a game quickly while coming off the bench after being the go-to guy on his teams growing up.

“Just coming off the bench I’ve been finding new ways to get myself involved,” he said. “I make sure I’m rebounding, playing defense, and trying to get a feel for the ball. Coming off the bench you’re cold, haven’t touched the ball in a while, so you have to get the rhythm of the offense.”

After this recent outing, Little admitted that the league was a bit tougher than he had envisioned. Yet with a few games in hand, he thinks he’s figured it out.

“It’s actually harder than I thought it would be like,” he said of the ACC. “But this type of thing isn’t something you can think of until you experience it.”

The Tar Heels bounced back with a strong shooting effort after being blown out at home against Louisville on Saturday. UNC went 9-for-21 from 3-point range after turning in a season-low performance of 3-for-22 beyond the arc against the Cardinals.

Point guard Coby White was a big reason for the turnaround. White scored a team-high 17 points, three days after going 0-for-4 from the floor against Louisville.

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