For North Carolina Saturday night, that moment took place seven and a half minutes into the second half when David Noel appeared on the verge of fumbling a fast break pass out of bounds. Instead, Noel (who had made a terrific transition catch and dunk in the first half) managed to save the ball over his head to Jawad Williams. A moment later Raymond Felton drove and then pitched the ball to Rashad McCants, who buried a 3 to give Carolina a 59-49 lead over Michigan State and put the Spartans in full retreat.
From then on out, some minor imperfections aside, Carolina had the game it wanted: Michigan State was forced to become a jump shooting team and the subsequent defensive boards allowed Carolina to get out and run; when that didn’t work, Sean May was on hand to finish the job off inside.
The result: an emphatic, impressive 87-71 national semifinal victory that left little doubt that these Tar Heels are (at a minimum) one of the best two teams in the nation.
The straightforward way to summarize Saturday’s game is to note that Carolina just didn’t play very well in the first half (“un-North Carolina-like” as Roy Williams put it), but then played a better focused, more intense second half. That summary would be largely accurate, but it would be wrong to ignore three first half developments that helped set up what happened in the second half.
First, and most pleasantly, was the welcome return of Jawad Williams as an offensive force in the first twenty minutes. It is not unusual for one or two players to be nervous, try to do too much, or be slightly out of sorts at the outset of a Final Four game, as appeared to be the case with both May and Raymond Felton early on.
When that happens, it’s vital that the nerves not get contagious and that other players take the lead in getting things going. Both Williams and Rashad McCants did that Saturday, but Jawad’s output was especially meaningful: first, seeing their senior leader break out had to give his teammates a lift; second, throughout the game Williams hit some quite difficult shots against good defense, always a demoralizing outcome for an opponent. It’s a pretty safe bet that Jawad Williams’ 20 points (good enough to move the Cleveland forward past Mitch Kupchak and Hubert Davis and into the school’s top twenty all-time scorers) weren’t budgeted for in Tom Izzo’s game plan.
The second key development in the first half was that Carolina’s two most indispensable players stayed out of foul trouble, despite quite early whistles against both May and Felton. The overall lack of foul trouble (Jackie Manuel aside) allowed Carolina to play much more aggressively in the second half, go for some blocked shots, and make assertive moves to the basket without worrying too much about picking up a charge.
Finally, it was vitally important that Carolina stay within a couple of baskets of the lead going into the break. On a different night, especially considering how the Tar Heels botched the last minute on offense, Carolina might have found itself down 10 or 12 points at halftime. A double-digit deficit would have created an entirely different level of anxiety and self-doubt among the Tar Heels and been an extra boost to Michigan State. A 5-point deficit, as Roy Williams noted postgame, is “nothing” and in a high-tempo game can often be overcome in as little as 30 good seconds. That’s pretty much what happened Saturday, as the Tar Heels wasted little time in claiming the upper hand after the interval.
Looking at the game as a whole, Carolina can take great satisfaction from its overall defensive performance (holding the Spartans to 34% shooting) and in puncturing the popular media description of this team as extraordinarily talented but (take your pick) prone to lapses in intensity, lacking team chemistry, soft defensively, etc., etc.
True, this club doesn’t often put together the stretches of absolutely perfect basketball the 1982 Tar Heels were capable of (including the unforgettable opening minutes of their national semifinal victory over Houston), and it perhaps doesn’t have quite the extraordinary blend of leadership and well-nigh perfect chemistry for which the 1993 team is so fondly remembered. But what this 2005 Tar Heel team is, is perfectly good enough to be playing on the first Monday night in April.
Rarely has an NCAA Tournament Final featured two teams who so thoroughly deserved to be there. Perhaps Carolina’s occasional lapses of concentration and other weaknesses (such as the tendency to turn the ball over too much in the early phases of the game) will finally catch up to the Tar Heels in this game; perhaps they will still be there but Carolina will be able to transcend those shortcomings by excellence in other areas; perhaps Carolina will play its best game imaginable and yet still come up short; perhaps both teams will struggle to find a flow and it will come down to who can make the fewest mistakes under duress.
All of those scenarios (and more) will be on the table when Carolina plays Illinois Monday night, with a national championship at stake. I recommend tuning in.
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.