CHAPEL HILL — It hurt to talk, Nate Britt said, and the stitches on the inside of his swollen upper lip poked through his mouth while he spoke. He looked a little like a fighter who’d taken a hard blow to the mouth, and, in some ways, that described his recent days.
“It’s getting better,” Britt, a North Carolina sophomore guard, said Monday night after the No. 13 Tar Heels’ 93-83 victory against Syracuse. “The swelling went down. It still hurts when I eat. It still hurts when I talk. So I’m just trying to get through it.”
What he did Monday night at the Smith Center should help. The Tar Heels (17-4, 7-1 ACC) figured they would have to make some outside shots against the Orange’s fabled 2-3 zone, and coach Roy Williams might have hoped – or prayed – that his team, not known for its shooting, would make those shots.
And for once it did. UNC made nine of its 16 3-point attempts. And for once Britt, who switched shooting hands in the offseason but has labored to find a consistent shooting rhythm, changed a game with his ability to shoot.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said he wasn’t counting on Britt’s shooting ability. And with good reason, perhaps, given Britt had never made more than two 3-pointers in any college game.
He made four of them, though, Monday night, and finished with a career-high 17 points. And his ability to make shots, especially in the second half, helped the Tar Heels maintain their lead and helped them extend it to a comfortable margin in the final few minutes.
“Awesome,” Williams said of Britt’s performance. “I feel so good for him.”
And then Williams shared why. It wasn’t only because of the busted lip Britt suffered last week in a victory at Wake Forest. The cut left him needing 15 stitches – Britt hopes those will come out Wednesday – and kept him out of practice late last week.
The injury has hindered Britt on the court. Off of it, he’s coping with the loss of his grandfather, Ned Britt, who died the night the Tar Heels defeated N.C. State on Jan. 14. Weeks have passed, but that has done little to take away the pain. Britt said he was “close” with his grandfather, who frequently made his way to the Smith Center to watch Britt play.
“It’s extremely tough,” Britt said. “I just try to keep myself busy with class and (school) work, practice. And like I said earlier, my teammates and my coaching staff have been helping me get through it.”
Britt, one of the Tar Heels’ first players off the bench, has been working especially hard on getting his shot right. He switched shooting hands in the summer, going from his left to his right, though he still shoots free throws left-handed.
Often, Britt will be at the gym late, working on his shot with junior guard Marcus Paige. The difference Monday night, Paige said, was “confidence.”
“He’s been struggling a little bit these past couple of games with his confidence and his mentality,” said Paige, who led UNC with 22 points, eight assists and no turnovers. “But we stay in the gym all the time. We got extra shots up last night, and it paid off.
“He’s a kid that works extremely hard, and he took advantage of his opportunity.”
The Tar Heels still faltered at times against the Syracuse zone. UNC committed 13 turnovers in the first half, the last of which allowed the Orange (14-7, 5-3) a breakaway layup it used to take a 40-35 halftime lead.
The second half, though, was among UNC’s finest of the season. The Tar Heels shot 62.1 percent – and 55.4 percent for the game. They scored 58 points – 13 more than they had, total, in an ugly loss a season ago at Syracuse.
And in the middle of all the success was Britt, one of four UNC players to finish with at least 17 points.
“Ever since he changed his shot he’s been trying to get his confidence up and he was really knocking it down,” said Brice Johnson, who made all six of his shots from the field and finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds. “And we call him the baby burner, but tonight he was a flame thrower. He couldn’t miss.”
UNC becoming accustomed to what Johnson provided and Paige, as well as he played, has had similar games many times before. For Britt, though, this was new.
The defense began to respect his shot more as the game wore on – like in high school, Britt said – and as shot after shot fell for him, he believed in himself more. These have been difficult times for him, what with the lip injury and the loss of his grandfather and the inner demons that come in moments of self-doubt, of which there have been many.
Even his jersey number – zero – is reflective of that. He started wearing it his freshman year of high school.
“The area where I’m from, there’s a lot of guys – a lot of naysayers – and I feel like I had a lot of those people when I was coming up through high school,” Britt said. “And it’s just a constant reminder that I have to try to prove myself every night.”
He did on Monday night like he never had before in a college game.