The North Carolina Tar Heels turned a close game into a blowout in a hurry, defeating the Providence Friars 85-66 in the second round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament Saturday night in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Tar Heels big man Brice Johnson had a double-double with a team-high 21 points and 10 rebounds, while UNC forwards Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II scored 15 points apiece. Senior point guard Marcus Paige had 12 for the top-seeded Tar Heels as they advanced to the Sweet 16 to take on the fifth-seeded Indiana Hoosiers in Philadelphia, which the university is already prepared for:
North Carolina improved to 9-0 in neutral-site games this year, per ESPN Stats & Info, but it had to withstand an offensive barrage from ninth-seeded Providence. Junior point guard Kris Dunn scored a game-high 29 points in what may have been his final college tilt, and Ben Bentil had 21 for Providence.
Coming into the contest, the focus was on both teams' star duos—Dunn and Bentil for the Friars and Paige and Johnson for UNC. Early on, that was the case. Dunn scored 10 of the Friars' first 14 points, but they came at a cost. The point guard picked up his second foul of the game with 11 minutes, seven seconds left in the half.
North Carolina didn't have an answer for Dunn, but picking up two early fouls was not smart on his part, per Rob Dauster of College Basketball Talk:
That last foul is so typical of Kris Dunn. He's killing UNC ... and heads to the bench with a totally unnecessary reach-in.— Rob Dauster (@RobDauster) March 20, 2016
Dunn came out with Providence down 19-14, but the Friars turned to Bentil to get back into the game. Providence went on an 8-2 run to take a 22-21 lead, with Bentil scoring half of those points.
That was due in part to self-inflicted errors from the Tar Heels, per Marilyn Payne of WRAL:
2 missed offensive rebounds, then 3 Tar Heel turnovers allow Providence to take a 22-21 lead on the 8-0 run. (None of the 8pts by Kris Dunn)— Marilyn Payne (@marilyn_payne) March 20, 2016
And with Bentil leading the charge on offense, there was no limit to the Providence big man's confidence, per Chip Patterson of CBS Sports:
Ben Bentil is JAWING to Brice Johnson after each offensive possession— Chip Patterson (@Chip_Patterson) March 20, 2016
With Dunn on the bench, Providence needed another scoring option to take the pressure off Bentil. That came in the form of guard Kyron Cartwright, who scored seven crucial points off the bench, including this wild three-point play with 5:50 remaining in the first half:
But the Tar Heels responded, ending the first half on a 9-2 run and holding the Friars without a make from the field in the final 5:50. Providence missed its final six shots to close the first half, thanks to some stellar defense, including this block by Johnson:
Michael Wilbon of ESPN's Pardon the Interruption knows LSU Tigers forward Ben Simmons is going to get much of the hype during this summer's NBA draft, but he didn't mince words while noting who he'd like on his team:
You can have Ben Simmons if you'd like; I'll take Brice Johnson 100 times out of 100 on my NBA team...— Michael Wilbon (@RealMikeWilbon) March 20, 2016
North Carolina took a 34-30 lead into halftime, but it obtained the four-point lead while Dunn was off the floor. Dunn's presence was immediately felt in the beginning of the second half as he scored on back-to-back possessions and gave the Friars a 36-34 lead.
But the Tar Heels defense again clamped down on Providence's high-low attack. It took away space in the paint and altered shots at the rim. When Providence settled for three-point jumpers, it couldn't capitalize.
That's when Johnson and Paige began to take over. Not only was Johnson making plays on the defensive end, but Providence also could not stop him in the low post. This three-point play by Johnson with 12:45 remaining was the beginning of the end for Providence:
Once Johnson did his damage, it was Paige's turn to join the party. Providence continued to hang around, trailing by five with over 10 minutes remaining, but Paige made the play that turned the tide of the game for good, rebounding a missed three by Nate Britt and laying it in for a 52-45 lead.
Detroit Lions tight end Eric Ebron, who played at North Carolina, knew the second half was Paige's time to shine:
Marcus Paige + 2nd Half = Greatness— Eric Ebron (@Ebron85) March 20, 2016
Even UNC Humor had to thank the big man upstairs for the Tar Heels point guard:
THANK YOU GOD FOR MARCUS PAIGE— UNC Humor (@UNC_Humor) March 20, 2016
Providence could not get closer than within seven points for the rest of the game, as Paige's three-pointer on the ensuing play sealed the win for UNC. The Tar Heels went on a 19-4 run from the 8:56 mark to the 3:57 mark of the second half.
If this was Dunn's final game at Providence—DraftExpress projects he will be the first point guard to be drafted in the summer—he went out with a bang. The Friars are in good hands going forward with Bentil as their star player, should he decide to stay in school.
As for the Tar Heels, the second half proved why they're a threat to win the tournament. Johnson and Paige are one of the most formidable duos in the field, and North Carolina will need those two to play at their best in the Sweet 16 against an Indiana Hoosiers team that's playing with a lot of confidence.
As if North Carolina needed more motivation, Providence apparently gave it to the Tar Heels, per Andrew Carter of the Charlotte Observer:
Back from the UNC locker room. Lots of commentary on how much talking there was from Providence. A lot of talking.— Andrew Carter (@_andrewcarter) March 20, 2016
The Tar Heels responded by getting to the free-throw line and making 19 of their 21 attempts. Johnson thought that was the reason the game turned in the second half for good.
“We were fortunate enough to get those guys in foul trouble,” Johnson said, per Carter. “We were attacking them, getting to the line. Me and Isaiah [Hicks] were just wreaking havoc down there for a while."
As if there was any lingering doubt, it does appear that Dunn played his final collegiate game Saturday. All it will take is a formal announcement from Dunn himself, declaring his entrance into the 2016 NBA draft.
“As a team, we kind of achieved the accomplishment that we wanted to do, which was to get back to the tournament," Dunn said, per Kevin McNamara of the Providence Journal. "The fact that we got past the first round was one of my accomplishments that I wanted to achieve. So I appreciate my teammates getting me through this journey.”
This will be North Carolina's second consecutive trip to the Sweet 16, and the Tar Heels are aware that they came up short last year against the Wisconsin Badgers.
“We're not done,” Paige said, per Carter. “We feel like we still have a lot of work to do. We feel like we can still play a lot better. We didn't come to this point in the season to get to the Sweet 16. The Sweet 16 is a stepping point to get to where we want to be, which is (at the Final Four) in Houston.”
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