SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Just about anyone has played playground basketball knows the everyone-for-himself game “21" (or sometimes, “33").
The standard version of the game simply ends when the first player gets to 21, and on occasion winning players are required to sink an additional shot from the top of the key to close the game out. The most demanding version of the game, though, requires the winning player to take each opponent out one-by-one: after you get to 21, you pick an opponent, go one-on-one against him, and then must take and make a shot from outside the lane to eliminate the opponent. It’s an exhausting game, but it is great way to build up one-on-one skills and mental toughness.
Just a wild guess, but I suspect Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry and perhaps one or two other Villanova players played that version of 21 at some point. In any case, the Wildcats brought an offensive game plan to the table Friday night in Syracuse that is almost unique in college basketball, relying on individual clearouts and the ability of quick guards to create and make their own shots.
That the Wildcats did to brilliant effect in the early going Friday night, seizing the lead early, exposing several Carolina players as individual defenders, and doing everything in their power to make the large, loud Villanova contingent in the building believe this could be their night. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels were struggling to overcome non-existent outside shooting, some bad body language, and frustration with the officials. Just as in the nightmare game at Duke earlier this year, Sean May seemed to be the only Carolina player at anything near his best in the first 20 minutes; yet at the end of a half in which Villanova had done so much right and the Tar Heels so much wrong, the gap was just four points.
What can we say about the second half? Roy Williams’ tactic of showing some zone looks to Villanova gave the Wildcats something to think about, and Carolina’s level of defensive intensity and concentration steadily increased as the game went on. Crucially, too, Villanova began to tire visibly, before regaining a new lease on life and new burst of adrenaline in the final 2:30 (more on that below).
Certainly Carolina improved enough on both ends of the floor in the second half to think the Heels likely would have salted this one away comfortably had Raymond Felton not picked up his fourth foul with just over 8 minutes to play and the Heels holding a hard-earned 50-45 lead. A Quentin Thomas charge and five quick points later, the score was tied, only 8 minutes remained, and suddenly the building was rocking again, in the Big East club’s favor.
What came next was perhaps Carolina’s four most impressive minutes of the season -- followed by a near-unthinkable collapse. At 50-50, two good things happened: senior Melvin Scott did a credible job at the point steadying the ship, and junior Rashad McCants took over in the offensive end, bagging 9-of-11 points (6 from the line, 3 on a crucial jumper to give the Heels the lead), spurring Carolina to an 11-0 run. Villanova bounced back with 4 straight points, but when Marvin Williams nailed his 3 point shot from the left elbow in front of Roy Williams for a 64-54 lead and just over 3:30 to play, it should have been game over.
Instead, a bad mental error by Felton (an ill-advised lob to Jackie Manuel) and then an astonishing offensive foul call on the junior point guard on the ensuing possession sent Felton to the bench and gave Villanova another chance, allowing the Wildcats to eventually whittle the lead all the way down to 64-62.
Enter Melvin Scott again, who calmly nailed two free throws for a 66-62 advantage with just 34 seconds to play. Yet even then it wasn’t over, as the Heels conceded a dreaded offensive rebound off a missed free throw to allow Villanova a chance to send the game into an overtime North Carolina really, really did not want to play.
Villanova fans (wrongly) booed lustily the game-breaking traveling call on Allan Ray in the final seconds. (To be fair, the officiating track record in the game to that point had done little to inspire confidence of observers or participants on either side.)
As for Carolina fans? For those in Syracuse, there was relief and some frustration that it had to be so close. But once it had sunk in, there was real excitement and pleasure that this group of players had survived a set of circumstances derived from all of Roy Williams’ worst dreams. (A substantial, happy Carolina crowd greeted the players and coaches on their return to the Wyndham Hotel about an hour after the final buzzer.)
To be sure, from a purist basketball point of view, the last three minutes of this game were highly disconcerting. But the NCAA Tournament is not about perfection, it’s about winning.
Carolina gets a chance to win another game Sunday, for an even bigger prize -- an opportunity that makes all the anxiety and tension of this late Friday night in Syracuse more than worth it.
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.