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UNC 72, FSU 70: The Legend of Harrison Barnes Grows

If you missed this game, all you’ll probably see this morning is that UNC found itself a point down with less than 10 seconds to go in the game, got the ball to Harrison Barnes and he buried the game-winning 3. And to be sure, that’s the most dramatic part of this game, and a great part of the storyline for the Heels. But the reason Barnes had to come through in the clutch was due to a suddenly porous defense and some horrific decision-making down the stretch that also deserves mentioning.

UNC’s performance in this game offered a different trajectory than recent matchups, as they faced a tough defensive team that normally struggles on offense but somehow both squads were able to score seemingly at will. Whereas Carolina has had to climb out of early defecits early in the ACC season, this time they built up a comfortable 7-to-9 point lead and seemed to sustain that margin for most of the game. The Heels’ offense seems to be clicking again just in time for the year-end matchup with Duke, as they have low-post options, a point guard whose knowledge of the offense continues to grow (8 more assists for Marshall, including a number of highlight-worthy finds on the break), some microwave offense off the bench (Leslie McDonald, who shot 3-5 from 3, and sank back-to-back shots when Carolina needed some momentum late in the second half) and, obviously, a guy in Barnes they can feel confident going to down the stretch. This is all good news. The defensive effort, however, was a little more troubling.

For a Seminoles team missing Chris Singleton, you would think the Heels would have been able to stifle FSU a bit more than they did. The Noles shot 48% from the field and were able to get around perimeter defenders and to the rack time after time, especially with Dexter Strickland again finding himself in early foul trouble. I know that everyone loves a good John Henson volleyball-style rejection, but I do think the Heels have a lot to work on in terms of weakside help, as both Henson and Barnes often seemed to be waiting to pounce for a big block rather than rotating over quickly and cutting off angles. Henson’s length still allowed him to change a number of shots and he was the biggest factor for Carolina on both ends, but FSU’s guards definitely figured something out in the second half as they started going high off the glass on a number of layups and closed the defecit down in a hurry. Obviously the Heels will be amped for the matchup against Duke, so it’s hard to see the defense not stepping up a bit there, but it’s still a little disconcerting that they’ve had 70+ points scored on them in back-to-back matchups against mediocre offensive teams.

Going back to FSU closing down the defecit, we definitely have to mention that Carolina had a lot of terrible decisions in the last 2 minutes of the game. Kendall Marshall especially had the freshman in him come out, starting with an ill-advised full-court pass to Tyler Zeller that was easily picked off by one of the three FSU defenders that were already downcourt anticipating it, and then continuing with failing to call a timeout after getting trapped by two defenders in a corner and UNC only up 3. He polished off the poor showing by trying to go coast-to-coast and give the Heels the win with an off-balance awkward layup that was mercifully swatted into the front row, paving the way for Barnes’ heroics. Dexter Strickland also had his WTF moment trying to drive into a couple of free-standing Nole defenders and get a call throwing up a wild shot. Marshall’s play is a bit more disconcerting since he’s counted on to keep his head above water and run the offense, and he doesn’t have a great history with play down the stretch already (remember, he got caught in midair in the Miami game and was lucky to find Barnes for that game-winner, as well). Had Barnes not rescued UNC, the Heels’ poor play down the stretch would have been the story of the game and possibly brought some bad momentum into Saturday night, but Carolina has to feel giddy after escaping with that win.

So after dissecting the minutia of flaws in this game, let us take a last final moment to praise Harrison Barnes, who, for all his not-playing-super-well throughout the rest of the game, continues to come through in the clutch for UNC again and again. Having a player with that level of self-confidence in crucial moments (he reportedly was asking Roy for the ball in the huddle, Jimmy Chitwood-style) is invaluable, and having it be a guy who can be counted on to get off his own shot is even better. The kid has Adonis DNA and tiger blood in his veins, and has slain the mighty Seminoles with his fire-breathing fists!

Thanks to his heroics, UNC steps into the Smith Center in three days with the chance to take the ACC regular-season title from Duke outright, at a time when the Devils are slumping a bit. The crowd will be raucous, the game is sure to be intense, and if it comes down to the last posession for UNC, everyone in the building knows who will be taking the shot.