Thad: Overcoming Challenges

Thad: Overcoming Challenges

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- North Carolina and Maryland served up a vintage ACC barnburner in College Park Saturday afternoon, as the Terps pushed the Tar Heels almost to the limit before impressive late-game execution lifted Carolina to an 83-74 victory.

This game felt like a key moment in Carolina's evolution as a team, with the Tar Heels evading not only the Terps but several other banana peels to erase a nine-point second half deficit.

First, Carolina played its first game since Dexter Strickland's season-ending injury against a team with a potent, high-scoring point guard. "The stats say Terrell [Stoglin] had 20" remarked Roy Williams after the game, "but I thought he had 50. He is really hard to guard."

That job out of the starting gate fell to Reggie Bullock, with Kendall Marshall and P.J. Hairston also occasionally covering, and the whole team sharing responsibility for dealing with Stoglin's drives to the baskets. Whether by design or not, Carolina succeeded in shutting down the ACC's leading scorer from the perimeter—Stoglin was just 1-for-9 from beyond the three-point arc—though the guard hit 7-for-12 on his two-point attempts, on a variety of driving layups and short pull-up shots.

"Reggie Bullock was really good [defensively]," said Williams.

"We knew Reggie would do a great job on him," added Marshall, "but we couldn't get in Reggie's way. Stoglin, he's going to use a lot of ball screens so one thing we wanted to focus on as a team was making sure Reggie had a path to get through that."

Had Stoglin gone 3-for-9 or 4-for-9 from outside, Carolina could have come out of this with a loss, so credit Bullock and company for a successful effort. Roy Williams unequivocally called Carolina's defense as a team in the second half the best of the season.

Second, Carolina walked the precipice of disastrous foul trouble, without tipping over it. Tyler Zeller had one of his most efficient performances of the season offensively, scoring 22 points in just 22 minutes after picking up his 4th foul early in the second half and staying on the bench for some eight minutes of game time.

Even more worryingly, an apparently erroneous attribution of a third foul to Marshall—it appeared the foul should have gone to Hairston, guarding Stoglin on a drive—meant that after picking up his fourth foul several minutes later, the all-important point guard had to play the final eight minutes with no room for error. Eyes don't pop as far any more when they read Marshall's line in the box score with its customary double-digit assists, but the fact is this was one of the sophomore point guard's truly great days as a Tar Heel. Marshall more than offset his six turnovers with 16 assists, nine important points, and two crucial second half steals. But all that would not have mattered if Marshall had not kept his cool in the final minutes and avoided fouling out.

Marshall acknowledged in the locker that the call against him was a mistake, but said simply "It's part of the game. There are always some calls that can go either way…you have to be able to play through any circumstance."

That admirable attitude served the Heels well in this game.

The third challenge was the presence and performance of Maryland's impressive new seven-footer Alex Len, who had a substantial impact on both ends of the court off the bench. Zeller scored with ease in the opening minutes, hitting his first three shots, but his first attempt against Len on a turnaround baseline shot fell well short. Len blocked four shots and collected nine rebounds, and showed he has an offensive game as well by scoring 12 points on 5-8 shooting.

Both Roy Williams and John Henson said they were very impressed by Len—"We haven't seen a 7-1 guy like him," noted Henson, while Williams said he was impressed by the big man's ability to put the ball on the floor and make his way to the goal.

"I think he has the potential to be very good," added Zeller. "He's a little raw right now, he goaltended a few shots being too aggressive, going for blocked shots, but I think he has the potential to be very good and I think in time as he gets older he will be."

Finally, there was the matter of Harrison Barnes spraining his ankle early in the second half, yet persevering to register three critical second half field goals, including the go-ahead three pointer midway through the second half.

Dealing with challenging matchups, foul trouble, injuries, and a tough Maryland crowd to come out with a win is a day's work well done. In the process Carolina also picked up some good positive experience in winning a tight, competitive game—an experience that should serve Carolina well in the tough away games remaining on the schedule.

The game also showed that Carolina's bread and butter this year—Marshall distributing the ball, and Carolina crashing the offensive boards—is good enough to beat most teams, even in the absence of consistent outside shooting and even on a night in which the Tar Heels had a substantial number of turnovers. The great remaining "what if" is how good the team might get if the outside shots (and foul shots) start consistently and reliably dropping as well.

In the meantime, Carolina has a chance to play for first half in the conference standings Wednesday night. Both Zeller and Henson were asked by this reporter if they knew who Carolina's next opponent was.

They did.

***

The topic of sportsmanship is a recurrent issue in the ACC, more so in College Park than in many other locales around the league. Roy Williams in his postgame praised Maryland officials for removing a fan who committed a clear-cut violation of acceptable norms, yelling out a derogatory and profane remark directed at UNC during a rest note in the national anthem.

Then there are the grayer areas—fans chanting their opinions of refs during the game, the Maryland student body giving the treatment to a UNC fan in their midst in the manner of a Red Sox fan in Yankee Stadium—behavior that in any other context would seem unacceptable but in the context of sports culture is widely regarded as harmless.

Also falling a bit into that gray area was John Henson's dunk just before the buzzer over Alex Len, an authoritative throw-down with the left hand. Roy Williams refused to criticize Henson for the move, but also said he would have preferred it hadn't happened out of his respect for Maryland coach Mark Turgeon.

Henson himself, told that Michael Jordan had famously dunked to close a game in College Park in a manner his head coach didn't approve of back in 1984, said he was pleased to be in the same company with MJ, and that he knew of the windmill dunk in question: "I think I've seen that!"

Most Maryland fans who stayed to the end (by no means all of them) were unhappy with the dunk. But three Terrapins who actually played the game—Johnny Rhodes, Laron Profit, and Byron Mouton, all seated just ahead of press row—didn't join in the boos. Instead they looked at each other with widened eyes, as if to say "did you see that?" Regardless of allegiances, there aren't many basketball players who don't appreciate an impressive dunk


Thad is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.

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