R.L. Bynum, Correspondent
COLUMBUS, OHIO — They say that everybody has a plan until you get punched in the mouth.
This wasn’t a punch.
But North Carolina’s Garrison Brooks took an elbow to the mouth from Washington’s Noah Dickerson with 12:20 left in the first half, leading to a cut lower lip requiring stitches, one loose tooth and one broken tooth.
There was a yell from a bleeding Brooks, but no foul because it was considered a basketball move by Dickerson.
UNC altered its plan with Nassir Little mostly taking Brooks’ minutes until the dental work was completed by halftime.
The rest was easy as the Tar Heels had little trouble with Washington’s Syracuse-style zone defense.
The No. 1-seed Tar Heels didn’t get Huskies’ best punch and, with Coby White’s 3-point shooting touch returning, they coasted to an 81-59 victory Sunday over No. 9-seed Washington to advance to a Midwest Regional final Friday against Auburn.
Back with force
Brooks returned in the second half to deliver tough interior defense that helped keep the Huskies from making a run.
The look of UNC’s defense was better with his return, but the look of his mouth was not.
“His mouth is pretty gross. Coach told him to smile for us and it was all red,” Kenny Williams, who missed a few minutes after tweaking his left hamstring, said with a groan.
“Coach went back there and said,’look at this smile’ and it was all red. Not what you want to see.”
Brooks didn’t speak with reporters after the game because he was getting his teeth looked at.
He went to a dentist before the team left Columbus to get two teeth straightened out.
“He’s fine,” Williams said.
“He’s just a little swollen right now. It’s just nasty to look at, honestly.”
Little could only shake his head in amazement that Brooks came back in the second half.
“I give him the most credit for that,” Little said.
“I don’t know if I could have done it. I love my team. The way he battled through that and showed his toughness and how much he’s willing to sacrifice for his team.”
Little was much more than just a guy who helped fill in for Brooks for much of the second half.
And he’s becoming an X factor that could fuel a deep run Tar Heels run.
Playing more than 21 minutes, the most time he’s gotten since the Syracuse win, he collected 20 points and seven rebounds.
More than anybody, Little figured out how to score on Washington’s zone.
“Coming off the bench, you kind of get to see how the game is going and kind of visualize yourself and the coaches are telling you to go here and do that and that gives an advantage,” Little said.
“Just attacking the gaps in the zone. The zone has some weak spots in it and I was getting to those and my teammates did a great job of finding me in those areas and I was capitalizing.”
Dropping from deep
There is some good karma for UNC with Little’s Sunday game: He’s the first non-starter to score at least 20 points in an NCAA tournament game since Marvin Williams did it against Iowa State during UNC’s 2005 title run.
“You know, a little bit of it is maturing,” Coach Roy Williams said of Little.
“He’s such a gifted guy around the basket. So quick, jumps so high that I think he himself is realizing it more now than he did early in practice and early in games.
“I was very happy when he went out to shoot that 3 right in front of the bench because it was a shot that everybody wants him to take,” Williams said.
“And we’ve seen him take those and he works extremely hard on the shot.”
It was only his third 3-pointer in the last 10 games.
That was one of nine UNC 3-pointers to give UNC a program-tying 305 this season, matching the total of last season.
The Tar Heels were just 68 of 224 (30.4%) from 3-point range in the previous nine games.
White led the way, going 4 of 7 after making just 8 of 36 in the previous five games.
One of them was a deep fade-away shot from the corner.
“It was a bad shot. It went in. Suddenly, it’s a good shot,” Williams said of White, who scored 17 points.
“But Coby has the ability to score. They were trying to cover him. They were trying to have somebody in front of him the whole game, and he picked his spots. I thought he did a really nice job for us.”
Securing the outside to work inside
Cameron Johnson has been the steadying force from the perimeter.
He had made at least two 3s in the previous eight games, making 24 of 51 (47%).
On Sunday, he made 4 of 7, finishing with 13 points and a career-high-matching seven assists (he also had seven assists for Pittsburgh against Virginia Tech).
“The key today was getting the ball to the middle,” Johnson said.
“The middle was a soft spot. They were covering the wings and the perimeter pretty well. And once we got it inside, it was basically a 2-on-1 for an easy jump shot or dump down. And I think we exploited that a lot more in the second half than we did in the first half.”
Particularly when Brooks was having his teeth worked on, Luke Maye was huge.
He finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds, the first 20-10 game by a Tar Heel since Kennedy Meeks had 25 points and 14 rebounds against Oregon in a 2017 national semifinal.
“It was in our scouting reports to take advantage of them on the offensive glass,” Maye said.
“Defensively, we just gotta box out. And I try to pride myself in working hard and trying to get as many offensive rebounds as I can.”
UNC has outrebounded its first two NCAA tournament foes 100-50.
And that helped UNC rebound from losing to Texas A&M in the second round last season.
Now it’s on to Kansas City for the Sweet 16 and a tough challenge that Auburn will present.
Triangle Sports Network: 401-323-8960, @TSportsNet