|Tar Heels keep finding a way when the game's on the line|
|Written by Admin|
|Sunday, 30 March 2008 13:03|
It used to be an iffy scenario for a team that struggled to close out games a year ago. But this season, the Tar Heels have found ways to win the tough ones - from Tyler Hansbrough's clutch jumpers to beat the Cardinals on Saturday night to last-second baskets and final-play defensive stops during the regular season.
``The team continued to show that when we need to dig deeper, when we needed to play better, we needed to play harder and we needed to play smarter, we did it,'' junior Marcus Ginyard said after an 83-73 win in the East Regional championship. ``That just shows how good this team really is, how when we get into those situations, we always get ourselves out.''
No one has questioned North Carolina (36-2), the NCAA tournament's No. 1 overall seed, when it comes to talent. But the Tar Heels came into the year with a resume full of shaky late-game performances from last season, most notably a second-half collapse against Georgetown that sent the Hoyas to the Final Four.
In that game, the Tar Heels missed 22 of 23 shots to let an 11-point lead slip away in the 96-84 overtime loss. The Tar Heels also lost four of six games decided by six or fewer points during the regular season. Key contributors such as Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Deon Thompson were freshmen then, while Hansbrough was a sophomore who hadn't even made it past the tournament's second round.
Now, as they prepare to face the Kansas-Davidson winner in San Antonio, the Tar Heels look like they have grown up. They are 3-0 in overtime and 6-1 in games decided by six or fewer points, including a pair of wins on buzzer-beating shots. Their only loss came when they allowed Maryland to score the go-ahead layup in the final seconds and Hansbrough missed a 3 at the buzzer in an 82-80 defeat in January.
They've also shown enough late-game toughness to turn some close scores into comfortable margins, including holding Duke scoreless for the final 5 1/2 minutes to win 76-68 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the regular-season finale.
``They are focused young men,'' coach Roy Williams said. ``They are tough kids. We still don't guard people as well as I would like for us to guard by any means.''
Still, he can't argue with the results.
They edged Davidson 72-68 here to open the season. In January, they rallied from a seven-point deficit in the final 2 1/2 minutes of regulation and used Ellington's buzzer-beating 3 to win at Clemson 90-88 in overtime. Three games later, they blocked a shot on the final play to beat Georgia Tech 83-82 on the road.
The Tar Heels also rallied from 11 down with three minutes left in regulation to beat Clemson in double overtime without an injured Lawson the next month. Then, in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinals, Hansbrough hit a jumper from the right corner with less than a second left to beat Virginia Tech 68-66.
In Saturday's regional final, they again found themselves trying to hold off a Big East team in the second half of a game they once firmly controlled. But this time, North Carolina came through, with Lawson hitting a key 3-pointer with about 5 minutes left followed by a pair of jumpers from Hansbrough over 6-foot-11 David Padgett.
They ended up with their fourth straight double-digit margin of victory in the NCAA tournament. But the Tar Heels are quick to point out that they have been in close games all season and that they aren't going to make the same mistakes down the stretch that haunted them in 2007.
``(Georgetown) made a run at us and we kind of went into a shell and stopped attacking,'' Ellington said. ``This year, we kept attacking, Tyler made some huge shots and we got some big-time stops on defense.
``We've been there before many times and we know what it takes to pull it out.''