Tommy: Getting closer and closer
With the score tied 83-83, and with the Huskie’s Emeka Okafor having his way inside all day, McCants nailed his second 3-pointer in a row with 6.2 seconds remaining to give Carolina easily its biggest win of the Roy Williams’ era in Chapel Hill.
“It’s about stepping up,” McCants said. “Big players make big shots and I just wanted to be that. Coach pulled my card and he wanted me to take the shot. He had the confidence in me and that’s all you can ask of a coach.”
McCants, whose play had been inconsistent of late, took the game over when it counted, scoring a team-high 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting, including 3-of-6 from 3-point range.
“He made a big-time basket,” Williams said. “I think that was fitting for him. Sean set a great screen for Rashad, the boy who’s been criticized more than Saddam [Hussein]. The kids did a great job of the execution of our last second play.”
Jawad Williams, protecting his broken nose with a considerably less opaque mask than he did Wednesday night, scored 18 points, converting 3-of-4 from 3-point range.
“He’s getting used to the mask,” Roy Williams said. “He’s really big for us on the offensive end.
Melvin Scott and Raymond Felton combined on 17 points and 14 assists, as well as holding Ben Gordon to just 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting. Gordon entered the game averaging over 25 points in his last four games.
With the win, Carolina tied UCLA for the most all-time wins over a top-ranked team with 10. The Tar Heels also snapped an 11-game win streak by the Huskies when defending the top spot on the road, as well as what was the NCAA’s current longest winning streak at 11 games.
“This one’s going to be hard to take,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. “What Roy Williams should do is schedule us 26 times a year. This is one heck of a home court advantage.”
The Tar Heels picked up a quality win for future NCAA Tournament consideration, as well as built their confidence level for the rest of the ACC season.
“It’s good for us that this game was in the Smith Center,” Williams said. “If Sam Cassell were here today, it wouldn’t have been a ‘wine and cheese crowd,’ because that crowd was something else. I told Woody [Durham, the Tar Heels’ radio play-by-play man], that was an ‘Uptown Saturday Night Crowd’ out there today boys.”
UNC’s (11-3) play was inspired from the opening tip-off, as was the sellout crowd of 21,750 in attendance. But just to take a look at the stat sheet, it would appear that the Huskies would have been victorious.
UConn (14-2), behind game-highs of 29 points and 13 rebounds from center Emeka Okafor, dominated Carolina in rebounding (43-36), assists (23-18), blocked shots (11-2), as well as took a slight edge in field goal percentage (49-44-percent). In fact, the Tar Heels’ allowed a season-high 55.6 percent shooting in the second half.
Yet, it may have been UNC’s on-the-ball defense that made the difference, forcing the Huskies into 21 turnovers against just 15 by the Tar Heels.
“I do think the kids will gain a great deal from this win,” Williams said. “Now we’ve got to be able to take that same kind of defensive intensity on the road with us. We’ve got to build on this. You’re not going to win many games being out-rebounded, 43-36.
When Okafor took the opening tip and slammed home a statement-making dunk to start the game, it seemed like a dark foreshadowing of what might come. But after trailing 18-12 with 13:33 to go before intermission, Carolina went on to force 14 first half turnovers and blitz the UConn 38-18 for the rest of the half and stormed into the locker room up, 50-36.
But the Huskies would pull back within one with 12:33 to play, and once again, it appeared a solid first half performance by the Tar Heels could fall short. Following Okafor’s second-straight field goal, Williams was forced to call a timeout.
Then with 9:15 remaining, Ben Gordon nailed a three to put the Huskies up, 70-67. After having dominated the game, and for the first time since early in the game, UNC would have to mount a comeback.
When Sean May, who finished with eight points and 11 rebounds, picked up his fourth foul at the 6:39 mark, the Tar Heels’ fortunes appeared at their lowest.
“It was a letdown that we were up at halftime and then let them back in it,” May said. “With a minute and fourteen, Caoch said, ‘If you give me everything you have right now, we’re going to win this thing. Everybody looked in his eyes and believed in each other and that’s why we made it happen.”
But a 3-pointer by Jawad Williams cut the Huskies’ lead to 77-76, sending the Smith Center crowd into a frenzy. Moments later a posted-up McCants would give the Tar Heels the lead back at 78-77 with 4:11 to play.
Then, on an outstanding defensive play deflecting an inlet pass to Okafor by McCants and a dunk by McCants on the other end put Carolina up 80-77. But UConn quickly regained the lead at 81-80 with just over two minutes to play, but McCants would nail another big trifecta to tie it again at 84-84 with 1:14 left.