Yet for some time it has been clear that not only fans but those in and around the program are not judging this 2004-05 club’s ongoing progress not with reference to the struggles of the recent past, but in comparison to the high standards set by Carolina’s previous truly great teams.
That, perhaps, is as it should be. The principal outstanding question regarding this group of Tar Heels has been and remains, as Roy Williams put it in his inimitable fashion, whether they could ever learn to play well and beat a quality opponent in front of someone other than “your momma and your daddy and your girlfriend.”
As is usually the case when Carolina hits the New York region, there were one or two old friends on hand (most notably the ever-animated Rasheed Wallace) in Hartford Sunday afternoon, but the vast majority of the 16,000-plus attendees wanted to see UNC lose yet another tough road game. Carolina certainly benefited a bit from this game’s location in an off-campus environment -- frustrated UConn undergraduates located in one endzone urged their older compatriots in the center sections to get more involved with repeated chants of ‘Stand up, Hartford,” pleas which were not always heeded. But this was a fairly tough crowd, representative of what Carolina might confront in an NCAA Tournament regional playing against a local favorite.
Carolina, of course, would rather their quest for St. Louis run through Charlotte and other Tar Heel-friendly locales. But here’s the catch-22: You don’t earn the right to a favorable NCAA draw without proving your ability to win against the best teams in the most hostile environments. Get the job done on the road in January or February, or be forced to do it in March, with no room for error -- and no experience with what it takes to win the most difficult games.
In that context, while Carolina’s 77-70 victory over a lower-ranked Connecticut team playing without its leading scorer does not help in the ACC race and might inspire only yawns from national observers, have no doubt about it: This was a crucial win at a crucial time.
First, as just noted, because Carolina needed to prove it can beat top-20 opposition on the road and maintain a better degree of composure in late-game situations away from home. For a brief moment in the first half, the Tar Heels appeared to be flirting with big-time trouble, falling behind 24-17 heading into the under-8 minute timeout. The Husky crowd calmed considerably over that 135 second break (thanks, CBS!), and Jawad Williams put together his best spurt in some time with seven consecutive points as Carolina (briefly) retook the lead.
In the second half, a quick 6-0 spurt over a 45-second time span gave Carolina the lead for good at 48-44 with 13 minutes to play -- an important development as it helped keep the crowd out of the game heading down the stretch. This was not a building the Heels would have wanted to play catch-up in during the final 10 minutes.
Second, and closely related, the Tar Heels needed to prove that they could win playing ugly. The Tar Heels had 16 shots blocked Sunday afternoon, didn’t shoot particularly well from outside, were badly outrebounded, and shot just 40 percent from the floor -- and went home with a ‘W’ anyway.
That is the sign of a team that has made enormous progress on the defensive end. After being embarrassed by repeated penetration by Marcus Williams in the first half -- “I think [he] was still feeling the effects of the other night,” observed Roy Williams -- Raymond Felton cranked up his effort defensively to the proverbial other level in the second half, getting his hands on numerous passes from the Husky point guard. Felton ended the day with five steals to go along with 16 points and 10 assists in a supreme display of competitive grit.
Third, Carolina showed the ability, as a unit, to suck it up in less than ideal circumstances. David Noel did not practice on Friday and Saturday, and Jackie Manuel was throwing up in his hotel room just twelve hours before tip off, yet each contributed solid if slightly abbreviated performances, highlighted by Manuel’s five steals and a brilliant backdoor bounce pass from Noel to Rashad McCants for a dunk to give Carolina a 69-63 lead and some needed breathing room with 3:24 to play. “It was a set play,” said Noel. “We knew they liked to pressure us, especially coming out of a timeout like that, so we wanted to go to Rashad for the backdoor and get him a bucket so he could get his confidence up.”
Meanwhile, emerging sophomore talent Reyshawn Terry stepped into the breach created by the illnesses with six very solid first half minutes, including a made three, a blocked shot, and a nice assist to Jawad Williams.
Among the relatively healthy Tar Heels, improved second half productivity from Rashad McCants and Marvin Williams fueled the go-ahead rally. McCants overcame his continued cold stretch from outside to tally 11 of his 15 points in the second half, mostly on layups and dunks. Likewise, Marvin Williams scored all four of his baskets in the second half, none bigger than a tap-in that gave the Heels a 71-63 lead with 2:55 to go and put Connecticut firmly in desperation mode. Williams admitted that the Huskies offered the toughest inside game Carolina has seen this year. “They’re big. Rudy Gay, Boone, Villanueva, they’re 6-9, 6-10, 6-11, those guys are big and strong, they can jump and they’re real long.” After posting a double goose egg (0 points, 0 rebounds) in 11 first-half minutes, the talented freshman grabbed six boards to go with his eight points after the break. “I just tried to be more aggressive on the offensive end and take the ball to the basket strong,” explained Williams.
In short, with two sick players and only Sean May really at the top of his game from the get-go, Carolina put together a deserved victory, in the process exhibiting a degree of mental toughness and team cohesion that will be sorely needed in upcoming trips to Raleigh and College Park, as well as in March. As McCants observed, “In a tough environment like UConn anything can happen, but the maturity of our team kept us in the game.”
No one in the Carolina camp will pretend that this solid victory makes up for the defeat in Durham, but this win said more about Carolina’s long-run prospects as a national contender than all the easy blowouts this year put together.
Additional notes from Hartford:
* Roy Williams described Friday’s practice -- the first since the Duke loss -- as the best of the season. Included in that practice was an open discussion of the breakdown of the ill-fated final play, with Williams urging his players to rally around Raymond Felton. “It wasn’t Ray’s fault,” insisted Marvin Williams. “As a point guard, he tries to make so much happen. Some things you can see on TV but he can’t see it in the game and that’s what happened with that last play, he was just trying to run the play. He gets down on himself but we had 23 turnovers as a team.”
* For the Carolina fans in attendance, perhaps the most entertaining part of the afternoon was watching Rasheed Wallace cheer his team on from behind the Tar Heel bench in his Carolina blue tracksuit. Wallace came out of the tunnel in the pregame just behind the team, then high-fived each player and coach at game’s end and congratulated Sean May and Rashad McCants in the locker room postgame. When Carolina put together its decisive run midway through the second half, the Detroit Pistons veteran stood up and made triumphant gestures, presumably in the direction of Pistons teammate and former Connecticut player Richard Hamilton, who was honored in a pregame ceremony. After the game, Wallace politely declined to specify which current Carolina player he would pick if he could add one to his team.
* That question may not have been on Rasheed’s mind, but it surely was on those of the thirty-plus NBA scouts and representatives in attendance at this game, headlined by New York Knicks General Manager Isaiah Thomas. While there is room for debate about which Tar Heel player might have most impressed those scouts, it was easy to pick the big loser in the impress-the-scouts department: Connecticut sophomore Charlie Villanueva, widely touted as a future lottery pick, who registered just two points in 27 minutes.
* Looking ahead, Carolina players David Noel and Marvin Williams insisted they would need no motivation to stay focused for the home games this week against Virginia and Clemson -- games in which the Tar Heels will be overwhelming favorites. Asked how high he plans to pull up his shorts in the throwback uniform game this Wednesday, Noel replied “We’re going to wear our shorts pretty long. We’re going to have a throwback look, but it’s going to have a modern touch to it.” Reyshawn Terry admitted that he couldn’t remember seeing Carolina play in the old uniforms, while Jawad Williams confirmed that there’s a plan for a team picture in the 70s-style uniforms afoot. “Not only that,” added the senior, “I want to make sure I get my jersey when I leave.”
Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/bookstore.html. You can email Thad at thwilliamson(nospam)@earthlink.net.