North Carolina freshmen begin to take over for No. 11 Heels

Virginia Tech North Carolina Basketball-4
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North Carolina's Nassir Little (left) and Coby White react following a play against Virginia Tech during the Tar Heels' 103-82 win on Monday. The two freshmen combined for 50 points in the home win.

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Virginia Tech North Carolina Basketball-9

Sports Writer

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

His night began simple enough.

Leaky Black checked in with 5 minutes, 17 seconds remaining in the first half of No. 11 North Carolina’s eventual 103-82 demolition of visiting No. 10 Virginia Tech on Monday, and needed 25 seconds before making his way onto the stat sheet.

His arrival came in the form of an assist to teammate Coby White, whose 3-pointer was the start of something big.

“How about the first play he’s in,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said of Black. “He’s the one that found Coby for the 3 on that stretch there.”

The Tar Heels were trailing by four when Williams chose to give Black his first minutes of the game in hopes that the freshman would provide some defensive energy. Within the next two minutes all three of UNC’s freshmen were on the floor for a game-turning flurry of points.

Sophomore Garrison Brooks and graduate student Cameron Johnson — both starters — closed out the half with freshmen Nassir Little, White and Black. The lineup was the answer to the Hokies’ hot start that included a 6-for-7 mark from 3-point range and a nine-point lead.

Black would soon hit a 3 of his own, before snatching a steal on the other end that led to another White 3-pointer — one of five he went on to make. The basket put the Tar Heels on a 10-0 run that would inflate to a 20-2 run by halftime.

“Those last four minutes or so, the group with me, Cam and the three freshmen were really locked in on defense and just focused on getting stops,” Brooks said. “And we got some really good shots.

“They were great, all three of them from Leaky, Coby and (Nassir) they were great. I knew they would be big-time players. Just throughout the season of course they’re going to have growing pains, but they battle and that’s something I’ve always respected about those three.”

Black’s line of three points, two assists and a steal was the topping to a career night for Little and a scoring outburst from White as the trio combined for 53 points. Little had a career-high 23 points, while White’s 27 paled only to his 33-point outburst against Texas on Nov. 22.

It was the fifth time in the past six games that White had scored in double figures. The point guard is averaging 14.9 points, and just under four assists per game, as he tinkers with the balance between scoring and facilitating.

“I’d like for him to still score like he did tonight,” Williams said. “But I’d like him to do it without three turnovers. I’d like him to get rid of those turnovers, and still, he’s offensive minded.”

Through 19 regular-season games and now six in the pinball nature of the ACC, there have been plenty of opportunities for the inexperienced to grow.

Little had a slow start of conference play with scoring outputs of six, two and six over 54 total minutes in first three games. Yet the most recent three games, all victories, saw an uptick in Little’s scoring with games of 11, 12 and 23 points over 51 minutes.

“Our depth is crazy, it shows how dangerous we can be. Naz is starting to get comfortable and it’s starting to get real scary,” White said. “3s are big-time shots, he’s starting to get comfortable, his shots are starting to fall, he’s going to be hard to guard now.”

And as Little sat in a seat stationed in the middle of the interview room entertaining a crowd of reporters, it would have been difficult to not notice how comfortable he looked in this setting.

He explained how he used time before and after practice to work on his shot mechanics, and about how his effort on the defensive end allowed him to keep an edge when his shot wasn’t falling.

“It’s not a relief, it’s just fun,” Little said when asked how he’s evaluated his recent play. “This is the basketball I’m used to playing, this is me. (My night) started off slow, then Leaky came in and I came in and we brought that extra fire and it started with stops.”

Those stops led to 18 straight points scored by the three freshmen that turned a two-point deficit into a 39-25 lead in the first half.

“I think all three of our freshmen are going to be very good players,” Williams said. “And I think they’ll continue to get better and better.”