North Carolina may win 20 games after all. The Tar Heels, playing in the NIT quarterfinal on Tuesday night, traveled to Alabama-Birmingham and captured their 19th victory by defeating the Blazers 60-55 in what some local reporters called the biggest home game in the history of UAB’s program.
The Heels did it with defense, holding the Blazers to just 29 percent field goal shooting. Carolina played a combination of its customary man-to-man defense and, in an atypical wrinkle, incorporated some 2-3 zone to force UAB — which doesn’t shoot nearly as well from the perimeter as the Heels’ previous two NIT opponents — to fire up jump shots.
Continuing the very recent trend, the Heels also displayed admirable poise while dealing with a hostile crowd and after getting hit by a couple of scoring runs. They also knocked in the majority of their clutch free throws.
Highly scrutinized point guard Larry Drew — even Dexter Strickland has acknowledged the recent transfer rumors regarding Drew — was a pivotal playmaker for the second consecutive contest. He made one key drive and a well-executed pass to enable the Heels to maintain a slight margin over their opponent.
Freshman John Henson has taken over as primary scoring option. Though not exactly a picture of grace, Henson hits two or three left-handed jumphooks each game and also provides defensive support in the form of blocks and “frightens.” He hit 7-for-11 shots against UAB, moving well without the ball and tossing down a couple dunks.
Senior Deon Thompson also played with the determination to keep his career rolling, finishing with 14 points and 12 rebounds.
Carolina’s next game will take place next Tuesday in Madison Square Garden. The Heels will battle either ACC foe Virginia Tech — UNC is 1-1 against the Hokies this season — or Rhode Island in the NIT semifinal.
To see the UNC/UAB box score, click here.