Mississippi State (24-12) knocked down three early 3-pointers to jump out to a 16-4 lead, but North Carolina’s underclassmen rallied their squad with a 26-7 run that gave UNC (18-16) its first lead of the game and a 36-33 halftime advantage in front of 9,471 at The Hump.
The Bulldogs countered with a 13-0 run only minutes into the second half to claim a 49-41 lead. Will Graves knotted the score at 61 with a 3-pointer from the right wing with six minutes to play and the two programs battled back-and-forth the rest of the way.
Graves banked in another 3-pointer with 31 seconds remaining to give UNC a 74-72 lead, but Barry Stewart connected on two free throws with 8.9 seconds left to tie the game, setting up Drew’s heroics off the inbounds pass.
Graves led North Carolina with 17 points on 4-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc. John Henson added 12 points, eight rebounds and three blocks. Stewart paced the Bulldogs with 18 points, while Varnado (14 pts, 7 rebs), Dee Bost (14 pts) and Ravern Johnson (13 pts) all scored in double figures.
North Carolina connected on 48.5 percent (32-of-66) of its field goal attempts, while Mississippi State shot 41.4 percent, including a 37.9 mark (11-of-29) from 3-point territory. The Tar Heels outrebounded the Bulldogs, 41-32.
North Carolina will play at UAB on Tuesday night (9pm/ESPN) in NIT quarterfinal action.
INSIDE THE GAME
Drew Rises to the Occasion
North Carolina fans have been desperate to find a scapegoat for this disaster of a season, and the majority of that group has pointed their target squarely at Larry Drew. The sophomore point guard faced the task of replacing ACC Player of the Year Ty Lawson, and despite lacking the weapons around him that his predecessor enjoyed, Drew still managed to post the ACC’s fourth-best assist-to-turnover ratio (1.9) this season.
His inconsistency and poor decision-making, however, has drawn the wrath of the fan base. UNC head coach Roy Williams yanked Drew in the early minutes of Saturday’s game for a lack of hustle and upon returning, the Encino, Calif. native managed only three points before his final charge down the court in attacking the nation’s best shotblocker for North Carolina’s first last-second game-winning shot of the season.
“When I got [down the court], I saw Jarvis to my right and I just wanted to give it a chance and let it go in, so I just put it up there as high as I could and prayed that it was going to go in,” Drew said.
For a kid that often appears to be carrying the weight of this season on his broad shoulders, his smile and laughter in the locker room after the game melted away that burden, if only for a little while.
“It’s definitely a good feeling for Larry,” senior Deon Thompson said. “People have been tough on him. So when you see a guy who’s been through a lot in just one season make a shot like that to help his team win a tough game, you’re definitely happy for the guy.”
Drew indicated that he’s well aware that Saturday’s win is just one game and that it doesn’t make right all of the wrongs of the past five months, but to not enjoy this moment doesn’t make a lot of sense, either.
“It’s been a disappointing season, but at some point, you’ve just got to move on,” Drew said. “It’s life lessons. When you’re out there on the court playing, basketball is just like life. You can’t hang around the past for too long, because you’re going to have another chance. The sun’s going to come up tomorrow and you’re going to have another chance to make something out of the situation that you’re in, so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Roy Williams is rumored to have a top-secret warehouse stocked full of timeouts hidden somewhere in Chatham County, so it was telling that the Hall-of-Fame coach broke protocol and called a timeout only 2:32 into Saturday’s game. Three turnovers in UNC’s first four possessions will force that kind of drastic action.
The timeout occurred with Mississippi State holding a 7-2 lead, and when the Tar Heels emerged from the huddle, the starters – save for Marcus Ginyard – were replaced with freshmen Travis Wear, Leslie McDonald, Dexter Strickland and sophomore Tyler Zeller. The Bulldogs’ margin increased to 16-4 shortly thereafter, but then the Tar Heel freshmen finally put together a run of their own.
“Before Coach put us in, he told us that we had to go in there and try to play as a team and try to pick up the tempo and that’s what we did,” Strickland said.
Strickland and McDonald penetrated for scores, Wear pounded inside for a pair of baskets and Henson displayed his versatility with a drive-and-dunk, an 18-footer and an alley-oop. North Carolina delivered a 26-7 run to take a 30-23 lead, thanks in large part to 21 points from the freshmen quartet. Tyler Zeller added the other five points.
“It was like a 12- or 13-point game and they got us back in the game,” Williams said of his freshmen.
Defending the 3 Ball
Mississippi State marked the second-straight team in North Carolina’s path to NIT supremacy that ranked in the top-10 nationally in made 3-pointers. The Bulldogs entered Saturday’s contest averaging 9.1 3-pointers per game (6th nationally) at a 36.0 percent rate (87th).
On Tuesday, William & Mary stormed back from a 10-point halftime deficit by drilling 6-of-8 3-pointers to claim a 59-55 lead, but the Tribe would miss 11 of its final 14 3-pointers. In a similar fashion, Mississippi State overcame a 32-24 deficit by knocking down 7-of-12 3-pointers to build a 49-41 second-half lead.
The Bulldogs missed six of their final eight 3-point attempts, allowing UNC to scrap and claw back into the game.
“It was just more of focusing and doing what we prepared over the past couple of days for them and get up to the 3-point shooters,” Graves said. “We had a game against William & Mary where we had to do the same thing.”