Lucas: Energy Crisis
Nassir Little

Lucas: Energy Crisis

By Adam Lucas

LAS VEGAS—The key stretch in Carolina's 94-78 win over UCLA arrived at a somewhat inopportune time.
After trailing throughout the first half, Cameron Johnson's second half surge had given the Tar Heels a 52-51 lead with 16:39 left in the game. But then freshman guard Coby White picked up his third foul and went straight to the bench.
For most of the rest of the two games in Las Vegas, Carolina without White had been like David Copperfield without his hair gel. Until that juncture, the Tar Heels had been outscored every single time White had been on the bench.
With Seventh Woods out with a concussion, it was fellow freshman Leaky Black who had to run the point with the game in the balance. And while White (19 points and eight assists) and the reemergence of the senior trio of Johnson, Luke Maye and Kenny Williams (that triumvirate's combined 45 points ties their combined high in a game this season) will get most of the headlines, it was the stretch when reserves Black, Brandon Robinson and Nassir Little were on the court that changed the game.
"We moved the ball well when we were out there," said Robinson, who finished with two points and four assists against zero turnovers in his 14 minutes. "We sat down on the defensive end and did what we were supposed to do. A lot of times when you're on the bench you get a chance to watch what is going on on the court and you see what is going wrong and what you can do to change it."
What was frequently going wrong was that the opponents were scoring at will. Texas in Thursday's second half and UCLA in Friday's first half had both scored over 1.20 points per possession—this season's defensive average was 0.77 points per possession going into the game with the Bruins.
Black immediately helped bring down that average by swatting away what looked like an easy layup for Jaylen Hands. He then recovered the ball and fired a bounce pass half the length of the court to Williams for a layup and a three-point lead. 
Two possessions later, Robinson threw himself on a loose ball under the UCLA basket, forcing a held ball; twenty seconds later, Maye tossed in a three-pointer. Then Maye had to leave with a cut on the back of his head, which brought in Little, who promptly inflicted his own brand of pain on the back of Jalen Hill's head with a thunderous one-handed slam that gave the Tar Heels a lead they would not relinquish.
You will see Little's posterization on the end of season highlight tape; when you do, don't forget that it was the culmination of a rising surge that had begun with his fellow reserves doing a little bit of everything that was necessary to change the flow of the game. "They," Roy Williams said, "were really big for us."

Of course, there will be those who will argue Little should not even be in this conversation, because he should not be coming off the bench. I will tell you two things: he played the fifth-most minutes in Las Vegas. In other words, starter's minutes.

And if we traveled back in time to 2005, if I put down my iPod Nano and flip phone long enough, I could show you the exact same arguments about Marvin Williams. His life has turned out pretty well. That season, the Tar Heels came to a pretty simple strategy: Williams would come off the bench, leave the game better than he found it, and usually play key minutes in the second half. There are four months left in this season and no guarantee things go the same way. But if that's what makes the team function the best way--both in the moments you can see on the court and in the more extensive moments you don't see behind the scenes--it's entirely possible it could turn out just fine for everyone.

So far, all indications are that Nassir Little doesn't really care about starting, and is more interested in winning. It's entirely possible that, eventually, winning might require him starting--if he consistently outrebounds Garrison Brooks, for example. Until then, I guess we'll all just have to tolerate him coming off the bench and demoralizing opponents. 

Little eventually scored five straight points and the Tar Heels pushed the lead out to seven. Then White reentered and drained a three-pointer that forced a UCLA timeout. The first person to greet White when he sprinted to the bench? Leaky Black.
"I think that dunk set the tone," Little said. "The energy after that play was different. Plays like that bring everyone up. Once we got up, we never came back down, and we kept pushing out the lead."
There is only one Little, so there is only one poster dunk. But there were similar energy-boosting plays throughout the afternoon from the reserves, who'd been outscored by the Texas subs on Thursday. Robinson had a nice tip-in. Black had a pair of assists.
Roy Williams' constant instruction to his reserves is simple: don't hurt the team, and find a way to help if you can. Friday, they helped.
"They played with passion and a lot of energy," White said. "They played well on the defensive end, and playing defense like that opens up the offense for us."
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