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Washington (24-11) increased its 45-44 halftime lead to five points twice in the second half, but North Carolina (28-7) immediately answered both times and refused to allow the Huskies to build on that margin. The Tar Heels trailed 74-69 with 7:04 left to play, but utilized a 15-4 spurt over the next five minutes to gain control.
A Scott Suggs 3-pointer cut Washington's deficit to 84-83 with 17.3 seconds to play and Kendall Marshall missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 15.2 left on the clock, giving the Huskies an opportunity to win the game on their last possession. After Venoy Overton's driving shot bounced off UNC out of bounds, John Henson tipped the inbounds pass and Dexter Strickland knocked down two free throws for the final margin.
Tyler Zeller led North Carolina with 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting, while Harrison Barnes added 22 points. Marshall scored 13 points and set a UNC school record in NCAA Tournament play with 14 assists. Terrence Ross paced the Huskies with 19 points and Matt Bryan-Amaning added 14 points and eight rebounds.
North Carolina shot 47.0 percent (31-of-66, 6-of-12 3s) from the floor and Washington countered with a 45.8 percent mark (33-of-72, 10-of-19 3s). The Huskies outrebounded the Tar Heels, 40-37.
INSIDE THE GAME
Return of the ‘D'
There's no doubt that North Carolina's defensive play during the regular season catapulted the Tar Heels to the ACC regular season championship, but that strength took a hit during the previous three postseason games – UNC allowed both Clemson and Duke to shoot 50 percent from the floor in the ACC Tournament before No. 15 Long Island ran up 87 points on Friday night.
Through the first 33 minutes on Sunday, that trend continued. Washington had connected on 49.2 percent of its field goal attempts (29-of-59) to that point, but C.J. Wilcox's 3-pointer with 7:06 remaining sparked UNC's defense to make a much-needed appearance in Charlotte.
According to the official stat sheet, North Carolina held the Huskies to 4-of-13 shooting, forced five turnovers (all steals) and came up with several crucial defensive stops over the final 7:06. The defensive play of the game occurred when Henson tipped Justin Holiday's inbounds pass underneath Washington's basket with 7.4 seconds left. Strickland grabbed the loose ball and then secured the victory with a pair of free throws.
The statistical reality was a little different – the NCAA credited Venoy Overton with a turnover on his halfcourt heave in the final seconds instead of a field goal attempt, while giving Henson a steal and a corresponding turnover.
Regardless, the Tar Heels leaned on their defense to win another game for them and that strategy paid off yet again. After a three-game sabbatical, UNC's defense is seemingly back on track.
"We always knew that we could do it, we just had to find the little thing that was missing," Zeller said. "Somehow we found it and we got going. I think we played great in the second half and we were able to take a lot of things away from them."
Who Needs Experience?
One of the overarching themes this week has been the fact that North Carolina's roster boasted just 50 minutes of NCAA Tournament experience entering the weekend.
While the Tar Heels' starting lineup included two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior who has missed significant segments of the past two seasons, Washington trotted out a starting squad of two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore.
But the stat that really matters as it relates to this season has been glossed over this week – North Carolina entered Sunday's contest with a 10-2 record in games decided by five points or less, while Washington countered with a 3-7 mark. UNC improved to 11-2 with its victory and the Huskies dropped to 3-8 in that statistical category.
Maybe this young Tar Heel team just doesn't know any better.
"Maybe that's what it is – we don't know necessarily what's at stake," Barnes said. "We just go in there blindsided trying to play basketball. We just try to play with as much heart as we can and just play as hard as we can."
Strickland's Shining Moment
This is how bad Strickland's criticism had gotten over the past several weeks – Williams felt the need to share details about a right knee injury on Wednesday that the program had kept quiet for over a month. After the sophomore guard had committed 13 turnovers while only scoring three field goals in his previous four games, the eighth-year UNC head coach came to his player's defense and provided the explanation that fans and media had been lacking.
Strickland silenced that criticism on the court against Washington, scoring 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting and grabbing six rebounds, but his most significant contribution was in shutting down Huskies leading scorer Isaiah Thomas.
The star point guard had averaged 18.8 points over his last five games in directing his squad to the Pac-10 Tournament championship, but Strickland prevented the 5-foot-9 speedster from penetrating and left him settling for difficult perimeter shots.
Thomas finished the game with 12 points on 5-of-15 shooting to go along with eight assists and three turnovers.
"I think the key to stopping him was limiting his touches to the ball, and I think not just myself but my teammates, they did a great job of being there and being supportive, playing defense the Carolina way," Strickland said.
But Strickland wasn't done with that defensive effort. After pulling in Henson's tipped pass with 7.4 seconds remaining, the sophomore calmly knocked down two free throws that gave UNC a three-point lead with five ticks left on the clock.
"I love the fact that he was successful today," Williams said. "And to be honest with you, when he went to the free throw line, I said, ‘This youngster is going the make this.' I couldn't be happier with anybody else on our team stepping up there. I just love that situation for him."
Mental Lapses Continue
Washington dismissed any concerns about the early start time and paired a trio of treys with advantages on the boards (12-5) and in turnovers (3-1) in the first 9:09 to race out to a 26-15 lead. That marked the fourth time in five games that UNC has trailed by double digits in the first half and the third time during that span that the Tar Heels fell behind by 10 or more before the second media timeout.
But Strickland sparked North Carolina's transition out of the timeout and the Tar Heels awoke from their slumber with an impressive 19-7 spurt to regain the lead at 34-33. UNC connected on eight of its 13 field goals and limited Washington to a 3-of-10 mark, while winning the rebounding (8-5) and turnover battles (3-0).
Lorenzo Romar quickly called a timeout to stem the tide, and the plan worked. Directly out of the break, North Carolina allowed an offensive rebound and a Thomas lay-up. After a Marshall missed 3-point attempt on the ensuing play, Thomas found a wide open C.J. Wilcox on the wing in transition to move Washington back out in front 38-34 just 54 seconds after falling behind.
It would be more than nine minutes before North Carolina retook the lead at 56-54.