Thursday, February 10, 2011

It's Not How You Start …

… It's how you finish. Anyone who's been associated with sports, no matter at what level, has heard the cliche. Last night was a prime example how and why that cliche came about.

All three basketball teams I was watching and rooting for last night started strong and jumped out to nice leads … and all three of them finished poorly and ended up losing. It began with the Sixers playing a nearly flawless first quarter against the Magic, taking a 27-18 lead after 12 minutes of play only to get eaten alive by Dwight Howard and lose 99-95. Shortly thereafter, Villanova took a seven-point lead into the half and went up by double digits with just minutes remaining before self-destructing in the final moments … missed free throw, not fouling, then the dreaded four-point play to lose by a single point.

Then everything came crashing down to make my night a total loss. North Carolina went out and completely dominated Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium in the first 20 minutes, going up by as much as 16 and taking a 14-point lead into halftime … only to get blown out by 20 in the second half to lose 79-73.

When it was all said and done, it didn't matter how great the Sixers, Wildcats and Tar Heels started. All that mattered was how Orlando, Rutgers and Duke finished. And I hated every second of it.

As for the Sixers, their loss was a little easier to swallow. When Dwight Howard goes 14-19 from the line, there's not many teams in the NBA that can beat the Magic, especially a team like the Sixers that really can't match up inside with Dwight. You have to give credit where credit's due. Howard was an absolute monster: 30 points, 17 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks while going 8-13 from the field and 14-19 from the line. There's just no way Spencer Hawes, Tony Battie and Elton Brand can stop this man, especially when he's connecting on his free throws.

When you add the three-point shooting of Ryan Anderson (4-6), Jason Richardson (2-5), Hedo Turkoglu (2-4) and J.J. Redick (2-4), it's kind of amazing they only lost by 4. A lot of that can be attributed to Andre Iguodala's excellent game: 21 points, 4 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals. He clearly was desperate to make up for his own 4-point play blunder the last time these two teams met.

Sadly for Philadelphia, it didn't turn out that way. And as it happened, the mere fact that the Sixers were taking on the Magic proved a bad omen … the four-point play cursed another local team on the same night the Sixers tried to exercise their own 4-point play demons.

That the Nova-Rutgers game was even close in the final minutes is absurd. Villanova was up by 10 with less than three minutes to play, up by 8 with just 2 minutes to go. They looked to be in complete control. They're an excellent free-throw shooting team. But then they completely fell apart. I went to the kitchen to get a drink and a snack, and next thing I know it's a two-point game.

Turns out that back-to-back turnovers by Antonio Pena and Maalik Wayns turned into five points for Rutgers, and suddenly it was a two-point game with 99 seconds to go. Then this happened:

What seemed like a huge, game-sealing three by James Bell with 11 seconds left to go up 5 was answered by a stupid, ridiculous banked three by James Beatty just four seconds later. Then Corey Fisher, who had been the man all night for Villanova, had a chance to ice the game at the line with just 6 seconds left. Fisher is a 78.7 percent foul shooter this season and a career 77 percent shooter from the line. He's made numerous clutch freebies in his career. And he was having an outstanding game — he finished with 23 points, 10 assists and 5 steals.

The only other Wildcat you'd want in that situation more than Fisher is probably Corey Stokes, who is among the leaders in the nation in free throw shooting at 93.5 percent. Yet Fisher plain choked, missing the first shot. He hit the second to put Nova up 3 with just 6 seconds left, but it was still just a one-possession game, and I immediately said, "Foul! Foul! Foul!"

To me, it only made sense for Nova to foul so Rutgers couldn't tie it and just turn the game into a foul-shooting contest with seconds left. After all, Nova is one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the country, Fisher's huge miss notwithstanding. Jay Wright elected to just play straight-up defense instead, and it backfired. Big time. Fisher, who went from hero to potential hero to choker, went to complete goat. Jonathan Mitchell, who had been Rutgers' most lethal scorer all night, rose for a three. And he nailed it, right in Fisher's grill.

I couldn't believe it and was ready for overtime. Only I realized the official called a foul. I was stunned. Fisher hadn't run out on Mitchell, hadn't left his feet, and all he did was have his hand in the air. Sure, the hand was close to the elbow, but to me it didn't look like Fisher actually touched Mitchell at all. And if he did, Mitchell was the one who moved his elbow into Fisher. Corey was stationary and had his hand up before MItchell even shot the ball. But the foul was called, and it was disastrous. Mitchell nailed the free throw and gave Rutgers the improbable one-point win.

I really hate four-point plays.

I also hate Duke. I hate Duke with every ounce of my being.

For a while last night, it looked like I was going to be able to revel in a UNC victory. North Carolina came out and played a nearly flawless first half. They dominated Duke on the Blue Devils' home court in every facet of the game during that first half. John Henson and Tyler Zeller were completely dominating inside, grabbing every rebound, scoring in the paint and physically abusing Duke's front line. Harrison Barnes started out hot, hitting an early three, and Kendall Marshall was a magician with the ball. I cannot tell you how fun it is to watch this guy play. You really have to see him for yourself.

His court vision is out of this world. Playing for the first time at Cameron Indoor Stadium as a freshman, I expected some jitters from Marshall, but he had none. At all. He was calm and collected right from the start, making passes that honestly remind me of a young Jason Kidd. And he showed no signs of being overwhelmed. He still has a long way to go with his scoring, missing a few shots around the hoop that he should finish, but the way he commanded the game in the first half reminded me of Raymond Felton dominating at Cameron Indoor as a freshman. The future is insanely bright for Marshall and the Tar Heels.

The way North Carolina dominated in the first half gave me more than enough hope that they could pull out the victory. Tyler Zeller was unstoppable, Henson was making gorgeous moves and flying all over the court, and Duke seemed stunned. The only player who looked alive for the Blue Devils was Nolan Smith, who simply could not be stopped. If it wasn't for him, Carolina would have been up by 30 at half, and truthfully, they should have been up even more. There were at least 2 or 3 charge calls on Carolina that absolutely should have been blocks on Duke, the most egregious one called on Dexter Strickland. Kyle Singler slid under as Strickland was in the air and finishing, still moving on top of that. It should have been a three-point play opportunity for Strickland, only it was called a charge. It was awful, the type of call that only the Dukies get.

Regardless, it wasn't the referees that decided the game. Not in the least.

Being at home, you knew Duke was going to make a run in the second half. I just hoped Carolina could weather it and regain their form. For a moment, that happened. Duke came out and scored the first eight points thanks to Nolan Smith continuing to dominate, and I started to get a really bad feeling. Roy called timeout and UNC went back up by 10, but Duke had already regained its confidence. All they needed now was someone to help Smith out.

Kyle Singler wasn't that guy. He and Harrison Barnes completely canceled each other out. After Barnes' three early in the game, he went silent. Singler simply wouldn't let him get the ball. I hate Kyle Singler with a passion, but I have to say, I've never seen him play better defense than he did last night. He simply wouldn't give Barnes any room to breathe. Ultimately, that made him ineffective offensively. Singler scored just 10 points last night and shot a ghastly 3-17 because he expended all his energy defensively. His efforts did not go for nought though, because Barnes was held to just 9 points himself.

So with Singler out of the equation, Seth Curry filled the other scoring void. For a stretch of about seven and a half minutes, Curry went the hell off. In that time frame, he scored 14 points, and suddenly the game was tied. In that second half, Seth Curry looked every bit like his older brother. He was unconscious.

Right then and there, you just knew UNC wasn't going to win. Duke was feeling it, and Carolina had gone away from what was working in the first half. John Henson picked up his third foul early and had to sit. To make matters worse, Carolina stopped going inside to Zeller, who was completely dominating. In the first half, Zeller had 13 points and 9 rebounds. Henson had 10 and 6. But when Henson went out, the Tar Heels barely even looked to get the ball down low. Zeller was working and calling for the ball but was simply ignored. It was like watching Carolina last year, when their best players were Zeller, Ed Davis and Deon Thompson, all interior guys, yet the guards would go on long spells of jacking up jumpers and ignoring the big men. It happened again in the second half last night.

A large reason for that was Duke kept running two guys at Marshall, forcing him to give up the ball. That meant guys like Leslie McDonald, Reggie Bullock and Dexter Strickland had the ball in their hands, and that often meant they were shooting. That didn't work out too well. Bullock couldn't buy a bucket, missing all five shots he took last night. McDonald made just 3 of 7 attempts. And Barnes was nowhere to be found, either glued to the bench because he couldn't get open, or invisible on the court because Singler was glued to him.

Everything fell apart. Zeller, who finished with a team-high 24 points and a game-high 13 rebounds on 10-14 shooting, simply didn't get enough touches. Duke began to rebound better, and Seth Curry and Nolan Smith were unstoppable.

Honestly, I'm not sure I've seen a more impressive performance this year than Nolan Smith last night. He scored a career-high 34 points and did it in all ways — threes, drives, tough shots, getting to the line, you name it. He was awesome. Carolina had absolutely no answer for him.

This year, he has simply taken his game to whole new level. There's no doubt he has the ACC Player of the Year all sewn up. Last night he put to rest the doubts if there were any. And Duke made a statement that they are still the class of the league this year, blowing away Carolina by 20 in the second half.

But as painful as the loss was, it's not all bad news for the Tar Heels. Last night definitely proved they aren't far away from being back where they were a couple years ago, and they certainly have found a special talent in Kendall Marshall. The kid just impressed the hell out of me last night — six assists and just one turnover. Zeller and Henson are a formidable duo inside … so long as their teammates don't forget about them. And Harrison Barnes, while quiet last night, is going to really be something special if he sticks around.

They're not quite there just yet as last night's second-half collapse shows, but you best believe that the Tar Heels are coming. Now they, along with Nova and the Sixers, just have to figure out how to finish.

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