RALEIGH — For the second game in a row, Roy Williams implored his team to wake up minutes after the opening tip.
And for the second game in a row, the No. 1-seeded North Carolina men’s basketball team responded with a big second half to put away a pesky lower-seeded team.
This time No. 9-seed Providence (24-11) was the casualty as UNC used a 29-6 run to break a 41-41 tie and grab a 85-66 win in the second round of the East Region.
With the win, UNC earns a berth in the Sweet Sixteen for the 27th time in school history.
“I don’t know what it is, but it’s just crazy that we can turn it on when we want to,” point guard Joel Berry said.
“Last game in the first half we came out the same way a little bit. I think this game we turned it on in the second half and we just have to learn we have to turn it on in the first half. We can take a lot of teams out of the game if we can do that.”
Against Florida Gulf Coast Thursday night, UNC led by only a point at halftime as the Eagles shot 60 percent in the first half. But in the second half, the Tar Heels locked in on defense to hold FGCU to 43.1 percent for the game.
In Saturday night’s game, UNC got up by as many as seven points before allowing Providence to go on an 8-0 run even with Big East Player of the Year Kris Dunn on the bench in foul trouble. The Friars briefly took a three-point lead before Berry erased it with a triple with 5:30 left in the first half.
UNC kept Providence without a field goal for the final 5:50 and looked to be putting the Friars behind them until the Friars came out hot with the first six points of the second half.
“You know, we came out in the second half, somebody told me, they said, ‘boy whatever you told them at half two nights ago, I hope you told them again,’” coach Roy Williams said. “I did. The other night we started out great, and this time they went 6-0. That’s how well my pep talks are going.”
Though Dunn still went off for 29 points, with few adjustments in the opening minutes of the second half, the Tar Heels kept him relatively in check.
“Marcus was guarding Dunn in the first half and he was pulling up and shooting over Marcus,” Berry said. “He’s a big point guard. We ended up switching Justin on him and giving him more size, and we knew he was going to try to be aggressive coming out in the second half because he sat most of the first half and I think we did a pretty good job of containing him.”
UNC also limited big man Bentil by throwing a rotation of Brice Johnson and other post players at him throughout the game.
Bentil finished with 21 points, but the rest of Providence’s team struggled to give its two stars much support.
Dunn and Bentil were the only two Friars in double figures, and the next highest scorer, Kyron Cartwright, checked in with seven points.
And as UNC contained Providence, the Tar Heels’ own offense flourished in the second half.
“I think any time we go on runs, (defense is) the biggest thing,” Jackson said. “Because when we get stops, we can get out in transition even more, which is where we’re at our best. And when we’re forcing them just to one shot, it’s hard to score every single possession on one shot. When we can do that, we’re a whole different team.”
Led by Johnson’s 21 points, five UNC players finished in double figures, coming at the Friars in relentless waves.
And in the second half, UNC hit 60 percent of its shots to outscore Providence 51-36.
“You can’t win with depth in the first 10 minutes of the game,” said Paige, who scored 12 points. “You’ve kind of got to keep grinding it out and that’s what we talked about and then eventually we were able to get the tempo back in our favor.”
UNC still isn’t quite sure why it’s taking so long to get rolling in the beginning of NCAA Tournament games, but Jackson, who scored 15 points, believes the team nearly has it all together — especially important ahead of the Tar Heels’ meeting with uptempo No. 5 seed Indiana Friday.
“I think we came out a little bit stronger this game but not as strong as we wanted to,” Jackson said. “So from here on out, we have to come out strong all 40 minutes because the competition just gets better and better. If we can do that, we’ll be alright.”