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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Exhale: Tar Heels survive Husky attack to advance to Sweet 16

Posted by on Sun, Mar 20, 2011 at 11:22 PM

NCAA-Tournament.jpg
CBS — North Carolina defeated Washington 86-83 on Sunday afternoon in the NCAA Tournament, catapulting the Tar Heels to the final 16 for the fifth time in the past seven seasons. The game brought a great deal of anxiety into the living rooms of Carolina fans everywhere, as the Huskies built an early lead and held a small advantage for most of the second half.

Unlike Carolina’s first game in the tournament, a win over Long Island in which three players accomplished most of the scoring, numerous Tar Heels elevated their games against Washington. Freshman point guard Kendall Marshall stormed back after a series of relatively subpar games, scoring 13 points and handing out 14 assists. More than his statistical contribution, Marshall exhibited the poise and leadership expected of a senior — not a freshman.

The Heels enjoyed a skill advantage in the frontcourt and made the most of it. Tyler Zeller led all scorers with 23 points, and he buried critical free throws late in the game. Harrison Barnes knocked in several three-pointers against Washington’s zone defense, finishing with 22 points and adding three steals as well.

Dexter Strickland, playing on an injured knee, was the key defensive player. He held star Huskies guard Isaiah Thomas to 5-for-15 shooting, and Strickland added 13 points and six rebounds of his own. John Henson was the other primary factor for the Heels, alternating between hero and potential goat seemingly on a possession-by-possession basis. He made a key steal on an out-of-bounds situation but also dropped a desperate heave by Washington that he could have ignored and given Carolina the ball and a certain win.

Controversy erupted after the game. Henson’s drop of Washington’s shot hit the endline with approximately 1.5 seconds remaining, but extra time elapsed from the official scoreboard and U-W was awarded only half a second to take a potential game-tying shot from three. The officials could have reviewed that play failed to do so, although in truth, the better team — particularly during the final five minutes — won the game.

Some observers will assert that No. 2 seed Carolina “struggled” against No. 7 Washington, but this was a difficult matchup for the Heels. Yes, the Huskies like to run at Carolina’s pace, but they also shoot threes very well and were on fire against the Heels. Washington capitalized on spotty UNC defense yet hit plenty of contested looks, too, and the Huskies’ 10-for-19 shooting behind the arc should have enabled them to prevail.

That Carolina was able to win a game against such a hot opponent, while also getting out-rebounded 40-37, speaks loudly about this young team’s character and timely contributions. The Tar Heels have won numerous close games this season, and that experience surely benefits them in pressure-packed situations such as the one they faced on Sunday.

The Heels will play their next game on Friday evening against Marquette, a No. 11 seed that upset Syracuse and is very tough and fast but also small. To see the UNC/U-W box score, click here.

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