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As his injuries mounted and his frustrations likely grew, Nassir Little could’ve easily made excuses about his recent play entering Saturday’s game against Florida State.

First came his right ankle injury against Virginia, which he played only two minutes against. Then came a blow in the sternum against Wake Forest. And before he could fully recover from either, he bumped knees with a teammate at practice earlier last week, leaving him even more banged up for Wednesday’s game at Duke.

“I felt like I couldn’t catch a break,” said Little, who was limited to 24 total minutes across the three games. “At the same time, I was just playing through it.”

Little said he was playing tentatively, though, for fear of getting hit in the chest again. But finally healthy Saturday, he demonstrated the sort of aggressiveness that’s been key to his success this season and could be integral to North Carolina realizing its potential in March.

For the first time since tallying 10 points against Miami on Feb. 9, Little scored in double figures in UNC’s 77-59 win over the Seminoles, finishing with 18 points. Six of those came on a team-high eight trips to the free-throw line. He also had a career-high eight rebounds.

“I think he was huge for us,” Roy Williams said. “Nassir getting to the backboards is something that I think really helps us.”

Williams said he emphasized that when he spoke with Little on Friday, two days after the freshman’s two-point, two-rebound effort against the Blue Devils. But neither elected to share more details about their conversation.

Although he didn’t believe his talk with Williams directly influenced his performance against Florida State, Little said it will help him going forward.

“(It was about) what he wants me to do as a player,” Little said, “and it was him just telling me he believes in me.”

Little showed why Williams has such faith in him from the moment he entered Saturday’s game. Having noticed the Seminoles weren’t consistently getting back in transition, he came out on the attack, using his athleticism to frequently get to the basket. He scored his first three points about six minutes in, when he made a jumper while being fouled and then sank the ensuing free throw.

Two more of his 11 first-half points came on a basket that he made while being fouled. But no play embodied his aggression more than his dunk over 6-foot-10 forward Mfiondu Kabengele.

Few players would’ve made the decision to challenge Kabengele like Little did when he drove down the right side of the lane and then threw down a right-handed slam just past Kabengele’s outstretched hand. But Little never hesitated.

“It didn’t really matter,” Little said. “I had to make the play that I had to make. He’s a big guy. I didn’t know he was that big. But once I’m in the air, it’s either me or him.”

That proved be the first of two highlight dunks for Little, who later had a putback dunk in the second half. As impressive as both slams were, Little rated both as sixes on a 1-10 scale.

Saturday was far from the first time Little had shown how dynamic he could be off the bench. Even after leading the team in scoring for the second time this season – he and Cameron Johnson shared team scoring honors against Elon – he still called his 23-point performance against Virginia Tech the best of his young career. But now healthy, the key is consistently stringing together such outings.

“He’s a great player and he’s got a lot of potential,” Luke Maye said. “He’s still learning the college game and just trying to get to the right spots. And I think we need to do a better job of getting him in spots to be successful.

“I thought he made some great drives today and played well defensively.”

If he keeps that up, the Tar Heels’ chances of achieving their lofty goals.

“When Nas plays like he did today, I feel like we’re unbeatable,” Seventh Woods said. “He came out with a different type of confidence today, and we just need that going forward.”

About Scott Livengood

Scott Livengood is the owner and CEO of Dewey’s Bakery, Inc., a commercial wholesale bakery with a respected national brand of ultra premium cookies and crackers.

Previously, Scott worked at Krispy Kreme Doughnuts for 27 years, starting as a trainee in 1977. He was appointed President of the company in 1992, then CEO and Chairman of the Board.

Scott has served on numerous boards including the Carter Center, the Calloway School of Business and the Babcock School of Management, Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County, and the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce.

He started a new business, StoryWork International, in 2016 with Richard Stone. The signature achievement to date is LivingStories, a story-based program for improved patient experiences and outcomes in partnership with Novant Health.