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UNC 86, Washington 83: A Heart-Stopping Look in the Mirror

Coming into this game, I felt very confident about Carolina’s chances. As a rule, Roy Williams’ teams tend to do very well against teams that mirror their general style of play, as opposed to a team that likes to grind it out in the half court. Washington looked great in the Pac-10 tournament, sure, but I figured Carolina would present an upgrade in terms of quality of opposition and wasn’t sure the Huskies could match UNC basket for basket.

Then, the game started.

UW looked absolutely fearless from the opening tip and their athleticism was matched only by their unbelievably hot 3-point shooting (6/10 in the first half) - it seemed the game plan wasn’t to take it to the Heels inside and challenge the big men as much as it was raining outside shots and running whenever possible. By inserting 7’0” Aziz N’Diaye into the starting lineup they were able to beat Carolina on the boards all night and generally frustrate UNC’s big men early, as Zeller’s only buckets in the first half were in transition. I was genuinely terrified. The Huskies were outshooting and outrebounding Carolina, and to make matters worse UNC was really showing their youth as UW built a 12-0 run on big outside shots by repeadedly trying to take an ill-advised run-killing three-pointer of their own. They seemed to be playing into Washington’s hands.

However, as much as we talk about this team’s youth, we have to give them credit for showing mental toughness usually reserved for an older team throughout the year, as they were once again able to gather themselves, re-focus the game plan, and quickly close a double-digit defecit on the strength of some transition points and generally looking to push the ball inside more. If there was one thing that gave me confidence early in this game it was the number of UW players finding themselves in foul trouble, which would pay off later in the form of being able to get more and more production inside as the aforementioned N’Diaye had to sit for a large portion of the second half. When Washington didn’t put the game away early, the Heels were able to push the tempo, not panic on defense and watch the Huskies shooting cool down, if only slightly.

Plenty of guys deserve praise for their performance in this one, playing their roles to a tee. Kendall Marshall doled out a tournament-record 14 assists to 4 turnovers, and picked his spots on offense effectively with 13 points, including a crucial stretch late in the game with Carolina down 5 where he pitched in 6 points on a subsequent 15-4 UNC run. Zeller got out and ran the way few big men in the country can, and Barnes turned in a number of clutch buckets exactly when the Heels needed them. Dexter Strickland managed to get 13 points without taking any mind-numbing shots, while holding Isaiah Thomas to 5-15 shooting on the other end. And of course John Henson was a disruptive defensive force throughout, right down to the game-saving play where he tipped Justin Holiday’s inbounds pass to make sure Washington never got the chance to take a game-winning shot. Instead, after two Strickland free throws, all they could manage was a game-tying attempt (after Henson foolishly mishandled the ball out of bounds on a halfcourt prayer) that fell short and/or may have been goaltended, but with Isaiah Thomas’ foot inside the line it wouldn’t have mattered much regardless.

Beyond individual performances, UNC did a number of things well as a team, cutting down on turnovers (just 9 in an uptempo game is impressive) and limiting their outside shots (taking about 12 threes, which seems right, and making half of them) in favor of scoring from inside the arc. Save a few truly boneheaded moments in the last moments of the game, Carolina looked poised and didn’t let a more experienced, physically tougher team ever pull away from them or intimidate them. A great deal of credit should be given to Carolina for making it to the Sweet 16 against an opponent that I think most would agree was NOT a 7-seed, and their reward came later in the day in the form of 11-seed Marquette knocking off Syracuse and their dreaded 2-3 zone, the one team most UNC fans did not want to see the Heels face. I have already established before this tournament that Sweet 16 feels about right for this team and anything hereafter I consider a bonus, regardless of the seed of opponent. However, UNC does seem to match up fairly well with Marquette, so let’s keep this thing going, shall we?