Sponsored by Crooks Corner
Make no mistake, this was the Duke-killing Maryland team that Carolina faced Sunday night, not the inscrutable outfit that laid giant turtle-sized eggs at home to Clemson and N.C. State. Yet at the end of the day, Carolina--minus Rashad McCants--went on the road, took a top 30-caliber team's absolute best shot, and still came out on top. Inspiring stuff, and not just because Carolina now has a chance to claim its first outright ACC regular season title in 12 years on home territory over the next week. While there is reason to be concerned about some of the lapses in concentration Sunday night that let Maryland extend this game to the wire, consider this: for the first time this season, Carolina pulled out a win in the final minute of a game that easily could have gone either way.
To be fair, Carolina has only had one other razor-close game this year: the loss at Duke. If you can win 24 games by the end of February and put 23 of them away well before the final minute, that's a good thing. But to win championships, you have to be able to win close games--period. And frankly, the track record with this group of players in tight situations over the past two seasons has not been the greatest.
A different precedent, it is to be hoped, was set Sunday night. No mental blackouts from Raymond Felton with the ball in his hand in the last minute on this night: instead, after some patient passing around the perimeter, the junior capped a generally brilliant offensive display by using picks from Jawad Williams and Sean May to ghost in for a lay-up.
But more impressive was what happened next. If you are defending a two-point lead in the game's final seconds, good outcomes, okay outcomes, and disastrous outcomes are possible. Carolina's first priority had to be to take away the possibility of a disastrous outcome--that is, to deny any Terrapin an open or semi-open look from 3-point range. Jackie Manuel did that extremely well, forcing Mike Jones to put the ball on the floor and take it to the basket in the game's final five seconds.
That minimal goal having been accomplished, the question became, could Carolina make an aggressive play to end the game then or there, or would they let Jones do his thing and hope for the best? Just 14 months ago, a miserable Roy Williams told reporters in Lexington, Kentucky of his bewilderment at his team's collective attitude of sitting around and waiting for the opponent to mess up, rather than going out and making something happen.
That rant felt like a very long time ago when Sean May provided defensive help to Manuel, coming across the lane to block Jones's shot and end this game. To be sure, May took a slight gamble--in providing help there was a slight possibility that Jones might somehow slide the ball to Garrison for a lay-up, or more likely, that Garrison would be in position for an uncontested tap-in of any miss. Even so, this was a risk worth taking--that was Mike Jones driving to the basket, not Steve Blake or even John Gilchrist. Manuel simply could not afford to foul in that situation, and had Jones gotten his shot off cleanly, overtime would have been the most likely result. Instead, May took full advantage of his outstanding conditioning and newfound athleticism to put Carolina on the brink of a regular season title.
Just moments before, junior David Noel also took a risk on the defensive end–providing baseline help on an attempted drive by Gilchrist, allowing Jones to float away to the 3-point line. Noel's help seemed to surprise Gilchrist, who got caught in a trap and saw his attempted pass to Jones deflected out-of-bounds by Felton.
That sequence of events worked out relatively well for Carolina, and marked another chapter in the evolution of Noel as a surprisingly savvy player. All year long I've been waiting for the article to come out noting that Noel is "this year's Jackie Manuel." To my knowledge it hasn't come out yet, so I'll come out and say it: David Noel is the Jackie Manuel of 2005.
Simply put, while the increased athleticism of Sean May and mental toughness of Jawad Williams are major factors in this team's success, no Carolina player has made greater strides in his floor game and overall decision making than Noel this year.
What is Noel doing well? Making plenty of good passes for assists, especially in transition situations, and avoiding bad ones. Putting the ball on the floor when needed, but not forcing the issue. Shooting a high overall percentage, while being very selective about when he takes the jump shot. Getting the job done on defense, and on the boards.
And--perhaps most impressively--he's doing all this in a limited number of minutes, without a hint of complaint or frustration.
The improvement of Noel stands in vivid contrast to a frustrating sophomore season in which a lingering hand injury made every catch and every rebound attempt an adventure. Some doubted whether the athletic forward would every really flourish in Roy Williams's system.
The junior has put those doubts to rest this year, and count this observer among those feeling quite agreeable to have Noel involved in crunch time situations like Sunday night. True, in the Maryland game, Noel was not perfect: he did force a couple of first half shots, and did make a woefully errant entry pass with the score 80-78 in the final two minutes.
But consider what Noel did right: five field goals made (in seven tries); sneaking away for the dunk at the end of the first half which gave Carolina a huge lift going into the break; a nifty pass on the fast break to Manuel for a 61-51 lead; a critical three-pointer to give Carolina a 72-68 lead; and a final stat line that included 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and a blocked shot, against just one turnover and one foul. That's a good night. If Melvin Scott got the Stepping Up award in Rashad McCants's absence Tuesday night, the honor from Sunday's win surely goes to the Durham junior.
More significantly, the truth is that this year's version of David Noel is like having an entirely new player. That development should not be overlooked in considering why this Carolina team finds itself in such a promising position as March rolls around.
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. For an archive of some of Thad's best articles over the past decade, head to the Thad Williamson Archive. You can email Thad at thwilliamson(nospam)@earthlink.net.