Eleven weeks ago, the Tar Heels were 7-4 moments after Corey Joseph delivered a 17-foot dagger over Dexter Strickland in the closing seconds of No. 7 Texas’ 78-76 victory in Greensboro. Despite holding a seven-point in the second half, North Carolina failed to close as the Longhorns connected on 15 of their final 25 field goal attempts, pulled down five offensive rebounds in the final eight minutes and forced three critical turnovers in the final six minutes.
Junior forward Tyler Zeller summed the loss up perfectly in his postgame interview, telling reporters, “They were able to pull out the plays at the end and we weren’t.”
But while the ’09-10 version of the Tar Heels often refused to take harsh lessons and learn from those mistakes, this current crop has taken a different approach. North Carolina has since won 16 of its 18 games, including five contests by three points or less. Factor in the 75-73 victory over No. 20 Kentucky on Dec. 4 and UNC is 6-1 in games decided by three points or less. That win total is tied for third-most in school history and represents the most since the 1976-77 season.
Head coach Roy Williams explained that success in tight games to reporters on Friday.
“It’s two things and I think luck is part of it,” Williams said. “I’ll always say that luck is part of it, but I’ll tell you the other thing – and I’ve said this since the very first game it happened which I think was at Virginia – our kids have some toughness and they’re willing to make plays and they focus and try to execute properly down the stretch.”
Harrison Barnes has played a significant role in those victories, knocking down game-winners or go-ahead shots in the final five minutes in four games, including Wednesday’s 3-pointer with 3.1 seconds remaining to give UNC a 72-70 win at Florida State.
Defense has also been an overwhelming factor in North Carolina’s run through the conference schedule. During the second half of ACC play, the Tar Heels are holding their opponents to 36.3 percent shooting – tops in the league by a full two percentage points over Duke (38.6).
But that’s not to say the Tar Heels have been flawless by any stretch. While UNC has suffocated its opponents in the first half of the last seven games (30.9 percent shooting), the second half has been a different story as the boys in blue are allowing their competition to connect on 42.9 percent of its field goal attempts.
The Tar Heels built a 14-point second-half lead against Boston College on Feb. 19 only to watch Reggie Jackson miss a potential game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer, and then eight days later, Maryland rallied from a 17-point second-half deficit and had possession of the ball trailing by eight points with roughly two minutes to play.
Wednesday night was another example of late-game struggles as North Carolina committed four turnovers and missed three field goals in seven straight possessions in the final four minutes that allowed Florida State to overcome a 67-60 deficit and grab a 70-69 lead before Barnes’s heroics.
“Usually our lapses come when we’re up by 10 or 15,” Zeller said on Friday. “We’ll have a lapse and let them back in the game. It’s something that if we want to be a great team we can’t let them do, but at the same time, we usually are able to find a way to get back going after they start getting closer… It’s something we can’t afford to do if we want to be a good team.”
The positive spin is that North Carolina ended up winning all three of the aforementioned games. But while the Tar Heels have proven they can blank out against average ACC opponents and still pull out victories, their last two games against national title contenders haven’t worked out quite as well. Referring, of course, to the narrow loss to Texas and the 79-73 defeat at Duke on Feb. 9.
After delivering its best half of the season in the opening 20 minutes at Cameron Indoor Stadium, North Carolina squandered its 14-point halftime lead with poor decision after poor decision. It took the Blue Devils less than 11 minutes to secure the lead and gain control in what proved to be a monumental momentum shift.
Credit Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski for making several tactical adjustments at halftime. The Blue Devils clogged off Kendall Marshall’s passing lanes by refusing to collapse on the freshman when he penetrated the lane and Nolan Smith (34 pts) and Seth Curry (22 pts) attacked the Tar Heel defense after Dexter Strickland got tangled up in foul trouble.
The Duke rally was surgical in scope, unrelenting and disheartening at the same time.
“You’ve got to come to play for 40 minutes,” Barnes said on Friday when asked about what his team learned from the loss in Durham. “We had that game and we let them come back. We let Nolan Smith go for 34. So it’s just little mental errors that we have to correct in order to be successful [on Saturday].”
Marshall echoed his classmate and roommate’s comments, saying, “We just stopped concentrating on the little things. We stopped getting stops on defense and we stopped moving the ball on offense. This time we really want to focus on playing a complete game and getting great shots every time down court.”
For the most part, the Tar Heels have shown an ability to learn from their mistakes this season. But the learning curve is still highlighted in bold at the Smith Center.
“They’re kids – we’ll still screw it up sometimes,” Williams said. “But they understand [their mistakes] at that moment. When they see it on tape, they really understand it. And they want to change. But still, you never know what’s going to happen in the heat of the moment... They’re still kids – two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior who has never played a full season. That’s our starting lineup.”
Williams’s feelings on the importance of the ACC Tournament are well known. While some may disagree, it’s clear in Chapel Hill that a regular season championship that spans two months worth of work carries more weight than a tournament title borne out of a long weekend heavy on cocktails.
The Tar Heels insist they have learned their lessons from the loss at Duke and the recent late-game lapses. Now all they have to do is prove it on Saturday night in the biggest game of their careers to this point.