Thursday, March 3, 2011
About a month ago, I warned everyone that the Tar Heels are coming. Well, after a hard-fought victory against a defensively tenacious Florida State team last night, North Carolina is in position to win the regular season ACC championship. Saturday night's ultimate rivalry match-up with Duke in Chapel Hill will decide the conference winner.
Heading into last night's game, UNC knew it controlled its own destiny following Duke's surprising loss at Virginia Tech Saturday. And seeing as North Carolina had rolled Florida State by 20 in Chapel Hill and the Seminoles were without their best player in Chris Singleton, you had to like Carolina's chances.
However, this Florida State is a different animal at home than it is on the road. The Seminoles had only lost twice all season in Tallahassee — back-to-back losses to Florida and Ohio State — and those losses were back in November. Since, Florida State had been undefeated at home before last night, including a five-point victory over Duke that all but assured an NCAA tournament berth. The Seminoles just play better at home. Combine that with the emotions of senior night, a chance to avenge the embarrassing 20-point loss a month earlier to UNC, and the desire to prove they could win a big game even without their star player, and this game turned into a battle.
I have to tip my hat to the Seminoles. They played their hearts out last night and nearly knocked off the Tar Heels. The defensive intensity limited Tyler Zeller to just 9 points, every shot was contested, and on the offensive end, they took advantage of every North Carolina defensive lapse. But it wasn't quite enough.
The other night, I heard one of the ESPN announcers — I can't remember who off the top of my head, but I think it was Tom Brennan — say he thinks North Carolina is a Final Four team, with all that talent and length, and last night, Jason Williams reiterated those sentiments, saying UNC is his darkhorse Final Four team. The announcer, Brennan I think, said the key was John Henson, because when Henson really decides he wants to play, he makes them really tough to beat.
Guess what? John Henson decided to play last night.
Henson was everywhere in the first half last night. With Tyler Zeller held in check and getting in foul trouble later, Henson took his game to a whole new level. He set the tone for the Tar Heels early, putting up 12 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks in the first 20 minutes, and finished with 19, 12 and 3. Further, he was the one Tar Heel that was a disruptive force on the defensive end. His three blocks don't dictate just how many shots he altered. The Seminoles must have missed a dozen shots around the rim because of Henson's incredible length.
He simply went into beast mode last night, and a couple of freshmen helped him out.
UNC has lost just one game since inserting freshman point guard Kendall Marshall into the lineup, and last night he made some brilliant plays as the floor general again. He dished out 8 assists, and despite going just 3-10 from the field, he nailed a huge three late to put Carolina in position to win.
However, it wasn't all good for Marshall. Dick Vitale said it a couple times and I have to agree with him: Believe it or not, Marshall is a little too unselfish. That's an odd thing to say of a point guard, because that's the point guard's job, to be unselfish and get his teammates the ball in position for them to score. He does that incredibly well. But he's so focused on making the pass that he often passes up on great shots. At least three times he drove to the hoop and had what looked to be pretty easy shots, two times layups, but instead he dished off. And a few other times, he had shots to take but looked to pass, only to see no one was open. Then he'd throw up a shot he wasn't expecting to take, making it a lot more difficult than it should have been.
He needs to be more assertive with his own shot and become a better finisher around the rim. When he does that, he'll become truly one of the best guards in the country. A little seasoning would help too.
For all the great plays and smart decisions he's made this year, Marshall almost cost Carolina the game late with some huge freshman mistakes. After a basket by Florida State made it a one-point game with 1:55 remaining, Marshall tried to hurry back with a full-court pass. The only problem was three Seminoles were back, and the pass got picked off easily.
Then, after Dexter Strickland hit two free throws to put the Heels up by three, Marshall grabbed a rebound off a Florida State miss near the sidelines. He was immediately trapped, and this is where he really almost blew the game. There was just a little over a minute left when Marshall got that rebound. UNC was up by three and had four timeouts remaining. Four. All Marshall had to do in that instance, trapped by two bigger players with nowhere to go and no sight lines to make a pass, was call a timeout. Instead, he tried to make a pass, it was deflected and stolen, and Derwin Kitchen got a layup to make it a one-point game again. Horrible mistake.
To top it all off, Marshall, who hadn't really looked for his shot more than three or four times all night, decided to drive the ball to the hoop and shoot it himself with 18 seconds left and Carolina down a point. It was easily blocked right back into his face, and it nearly hit him on the way out of bounds. It was his third terrible decision in a row.
Luckily for Marshall, the ball didn't hit him on the way out, and his fellow freshman bailed him out.
It took a lot longer than people expected, but Harrison Barnes has been the player he was touted to be here in 2011.
He put up 18 huge points last night, going 6-10 from the field and 2-4 from three. But more important than his shooting percentage or final stat line is what happened at the end of that game.
At the beginning of the season, Barnes could not make a shot to save his life. He looked overwhelmed, overmatched and seemed to doubt himself. There was no confidence to be found. But as his shot came back to him and the Tar Heels started to win, Barnes' confidence has grown more and more. And last night, he did what the No. 1 recruit in the nation is supposed to do: He called for the ball with the game on line.
You could see in the huddle that Roy Williams was drawing up a play for Barnes. Barnes was animately talking to Roy, telling him he wanted the ball. And the coach obliged. Barnes inbounded the ball with 11 seconds left to Marshall, got it back from him, and the Tar Heels cleared out for him. This was Barnes' moment, the freshman one-on-one with his defender. You could see he had no intention of passing it. HIs shot was going to decide Carolina's face. There was no panic in Barnes' face, no fear or nervousness. Watching him, you could see the focus and purpose in his dribbles. The freshman calmly stared down his defender, backed him off the slightest bit, rose and drilled the game-winning three right in his face.
There is no self-doubt anymore, and no other doubters either. Harrison Barnes is all he was cracked up to be.
Now Carolina gets its rematch with Duke on Saturday, this time at home in the Dean Dome, for all the marbles. Who would have seen that coming at the beginning of the year, when Carolina lost back-to-back games to Minnesota and Vanderbilt, lost to Illinois, and Barnes couldn't make a shot?
Doesn't matter, because this is a completely different team with a completely different demeanor. Three months ago, the Tar Heels could not have won a game like last night's, especially with Zeller putting up just 9 and 4. But these Tar Heels can, and they're a victory away from winning the ACC.
Is it Saturday yet?