Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Battle of the Baby Blues

It wasn't pretty, but the Tar Heels continued to make something of their lost season by earning a trip to the NIT final to take on Dayton tomorrow night, defeating a very game Rhode Island team 68-67 in overtime. It was another nice step forward for a young team that suffered injuries and plain underachieved much of the year.

Though it wasn't the most aesthetically pleasing performance, on either side. And that's a kind way of putting it. Both the Rams and the Tar Heels were atrocious offensively in Madison Square Garden last night. The teams shot a combined 35.8 percent from the field, 18.9 percent from three and 58.8 percent from the line. UNC was the worse of the bunch, going 29-83 from the field (34.9 percent), 2-17 from three (11.8 percent) and 8-16 from the line (50 percent), while Rhode Island did slightly better, shooting 25-68 from the field (36.8 percent), 5-20 from three (25 percent) and 12-18 from the line (66.7 percent). Both teams had 17 turnovers apiece. And only two players in the entire game shot better than 50 percent from the field (Tyler Zeller for UNC, 5-9; Lamonte Ulmer for URI, 8-12).

The odd thing about it was the game was being played at breakneck speed, with both teams flying up and down the court. Usually that translates to a lot of points and very little defense. Last night was the exception, which prompted Fran Fraschilla to at one point call it the most exciting game with so few finishes he's seen.

It was exciting, at least in some fashion. The brand of basketball wasn't exciting as much as it was sloppy, but the score, the lead changes, the outcome were all exciting. This was a tight contest throughout. The teams were tied 30-30 at half, they both scored 29 in the second 20 minutes of play, and the overtime was decided by just a point, with UNC narrowly outscoring Rhode Island 9-8.

At one point in the second half, North Carolina took what looked to be a commanding lead, only to see Rhode Island fight back with an 8-0 run to tie it. The Tar Heels had a few chances to extend the lead and put the game out of reach at the foul line but couldn't. And in overtime, it came all the way down to the last possession, with Rhode Island securing the ball down one with a few seconds to go, only to cough it up on a slip to end the game. The outcome was in question until the final second. Not a bad way to cap off the Other Final Four.

The unfortunate thing about that game, despite the win, was how North Carolina played. In this tournament, the Tar Heels have been doing a much better job executing on offense, taking better care of the basketball and taking better shots. But not last night. Instead of continuing to evolve, continuing to learn and get better, the Tar Heels made poor decisions with the basketball, poor passes and as a result, the turnovers were up again. They took bad shots, a major reason they shot so poorly from the field. Tyler Zeller had just 9 shots despite being the most efficient scorer for the Heels last night. Deon Thompson hoisted 20 shots despite shooting just 30 percent from the field (though he did have a team-high 16 points and a game-high 13 rebounds). Will Graves went just 1-7 from three, but kept hoisting them. Marcus Ginyard didn't even find a way to make a bucket (though he did have 10 boards).

The good news is despite all that, this young squad found a way to win a game they simply couldn't win a couple months ago. They did it by dominating the glass, outrebounding Rhode Island 54-39, with 23 of those coming on the offensive end. They did it with tough defense, stifling the Rams' offense. That's progress, and this experience should do wonders for these young Heels, giving them confidence to finish up a disappointing season.

It may not be what they had hoped for, but a victory over Dayton tomorrow night and an NIT title could do wonders for a team that was lucky to even qualify for the JV tournament. And with Harrison Barnes and company coming in next season, it wouldn't be shocking to see the Tar Heels right back on top next year.

BallHype: hype it up!

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