R.L. Bynum, Correspondent
RALEIGH, N.C. — If you play for Roy Williams, it’s no secret that one way to improve your playing time is to play good defense.
That was never more apparent than down the stretch of No. 12 North Carolina’s 90–82 victory Tuesday over No. 15 N.C. State as Williams was trying to hold off the Wolfpack.
“We tried to think, who are our five best defenders?” Williams said.
That was part of the calculation when freshman Nassir Little — who struggled on both ends of the court at times against the Wolfpack — watched with the game on the line while Williams gave Brandon Robinson some high-leverage minutes.
“Definitely a confidence boost. I’m pretty happy with that,” Robinson said.
Robinson played 5:14 of the last 6:18 while Little was on the bench for that entire time.
It’s sure to add to the ongoing debate about why the highly recruited Little — who had 2 points, 2 rebounds and 2 turnovers in 17 minutes — isn’t playing more.
Fans can debate the merits of the decision, but the reason Robinson was on the court that much in the final minutes was obvious.
“It started on defense,” said Robinson, who also had a good all-around game in 15 minutes during the win at Pittsburgh with a career-high three steals.
“I think I’ve been playing defense pretty well and that’s what’s been getting me on the court, so I’ve just got to keep that up.”
When he guarded Markell Johnson (who finished with 11 points) some but mostly CJ Bryce (13) during that key stretch late in the second half, neither scored.
“During practice, he really goes hard,” said UNC freshman point guard Coby White, who deals with Robinson’s defense frequently in practice.
“He’s very defensive-oriented. He knows how to use his length, and he’s always in the right spots on defense. He plays good on-the-ball defense and off-the-ball defense.”
It was a reminder of Robinson’s length when, with 5:26 left, he came over from the weak side to knock away a shot by a driving Braxton Beverly in the lane for one of a career-high-tying two blocks.
He’s part of the reason why UNC’s defense, which has been terrible at times this season, has improved in recent games.
For the fifth consecutive game, the Tar Heels (12-3) held an opponent to under 1.00 on points per possession (the Pack was at 0.95) as they take a 2-0 ACC record into their league home opener Saturday against Louisville.
“He’s always ready and when you’re always ready, you’re going to show up,” said senior guard Kenny Williams.
“It’s funny that it always happens in the big games. That’s what he did tonight. He was ready. He does what he does and that’s what I kept telling him, just do what you do, and he did that and contributed in a big way.”
Bench contributions became huge for the Tar Heels when their leading scorer, Cameron Johnson, missed most of the second half dealing with cramps in both legs.
When Johnson first came out early in the second half, Robinson immediately hit a corner 3-pointer after the Wolfpack had cut the lead to one.
Brandon Robinson makes the 3 pic.twitter.com/0RAHX72ksI
— Dadgum Box Scores (@dadgumboxscores) January 9, 2019
“He just brings energy. That’s what he does,” Kenny Williams said.
“He’s a constant energy source off the bench. You see him throwing his body around. Always trying to go for the loose ball and that’s exactly what we need from him.”
Until the last two games, Robinson’s chances to show what he can do had been limited.
He obviously was given more of an opportunity against N.C. State when Johnson’s cramping got worse and he left the game for good after returning for a little over a minute.
But it’s the second consecutive game he’s played career-high minutes for an ACC game.
After playing 15 minutes at Pittsburgh, he played 16 at N.C. State.
His previous high for an ACC game was 12 minutes (at Miami his sophomore season) and his career high in all games is 21 minutes against Long Beach State during his freshman season.
Robinson played single-digit minutes against Texas, Gonzaga and Kentucky.
When he got in for only three minutes against Gonzaga, as Coach Williams appeared to tighten his rotation, that couldn’t have been encouraging for the 6-5 junior wing.
Freshman Leaky Black also played a key role off the bench against the Pack — with a block, a steal and a big late dunk — but he has been given a lot more chances (183 minutes on the season) than Robinson (144).
“Every day, I’m proud of Brandon because it hasn’t been easy for him,” Kenny Williams said.
“But he’s taken it and he’s being a man about it and he’s contributing now and I’m happy to see that for him.”
His season-high is 11 points against Saint Francis.
Although he only scored three against the Wolfpack, the chance Robinson was given in Raleigh with the game on the line was a boost for him.
“I think that shows a lot from Coach,” Robinson said.
“That means he trusted me to be able to put me in at the end of the game like that. I just wanted to go out there and not make mistakes and help my team.”
Coach Williams preaches to his bench players that he mainly doesn’t want them to hurt the team when they’re in the game.
Robinson was a bright spot on a turnover-plagued evening for UNC, which had 23 turnovers against N.C. State.
In his last 64 minutes, Robinson has only one turnover, and that came three games ago against Harvard.
“I just think it started in practice. In practice, I’ve been playing pretty well and it’s just kind of carrying over into the game.
I think I’ve had a little good stretch these last couple of games,” Robinson said.
Robinson still looks like he would benefit from adding some more girth to his lanky frame.
But his quickness and length can be a factor on both ends of the court.
“He played great. He’s done a great job. Works his butt off and I think he deserves it,” said senior Luke Maye, who led UNC with 21 points but also with a career-high seven turnovers.
“He does all the little things … crashes the boards. He’s a great player, he just has better players in front of him. But he knows when his number is called, he’s going to play well.”
Brandon Robinson finds Maye in the paint pic.twitter.com/xUQztHl7sq
— Dadgum Box Scores (@dadgumboxscores) January 3, 2019
Robinson has obviously followed the career arc of Maye, who lightly contributed as a freshman and sophomore before becoming a star last season after making the huge shot to beat Kentucky in the 2017 NCAA South Regional final.
Maye waited his turn and eventually has made a big impact.
The wait has been longer for Robinson, and there are no guarantees that he’ll work his way into a starting role as a senior.
“Definitely something that I’ve been paying attention to,” Robinson said of Maye’s rise to be a star.
“Coach Davis has been telling me something big [could be coming]. Always prepare like a starter. So, even though I’m not a starter, I go preparing like a starter.”
The progression of Maye is a classic example of why Roy Williams plays so many players compared to some coaches, such as Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, who prefer a seven-man rotation.
Williams always has the long game in mind, knowing that a bench player today could be a key player down the road and will benefit from the playing time.
“Every day in practice, I compete, push myself and try to go against the starters and try to make myself better,” Robinson said.
“Coach always says just be ready when your number is called and that’s what I was, I was ready.”
White sees the court a lot more than Robinson, but he also sees a lot of qualities in his older teammate.
“B-Rob knows the game real well,” said White, who was one of five players to score in double figures against the Pack with 19 points.
“He doesn’t get flustered. He’s a really smart basketball player. He knows the ins and outs of the game and the system, so I feel like everybody on the team trusts him. Coach trusts him to be in there in the big-time moments.”
Of the Tar Heels who have double-digit attempts, Robinson is second on the team in 3-point shooting percentage at 46.7% (7 of 16), behind only Johnson (49.4%).
He’s just as active on the offensive end as the defensive end.
“I just try to move without the ball. Make different plays,” Robinson said.
“When I’m open, I’m going to shoot it. I believe in myself a lot. I have a lot of confidence in my shot. This summer, I’ve put a lot of work into my shot. And it’s showing and I’m shooting the ball pretty well.”
If Tuesday was any indication, he may be getting more shots to show that, along with his aggressive play on defense.
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