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March 11, 2011

Heels draw Canes

After five days off from game action, North Carolina (24-6 overall, No. 6/7 in AP/Coach's Poll) returns to the court Friday afternoon in the quarterfinal round of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. Tipoff is at noon in the Greensboro Coliseum.

They'll face a Miami team that pulled off the biggest last-minute comeback in the 58-year history of the ACC Tournament on Thursday, as they overcame a 10-point deficit in the final 45 seconds to remarkably force overtime and ultimately knock out Virginia.

Although the Hurricanes went a highly-frustrating stretch of 18 minutes in the second half with only two converted field goals, they wound up making nine-of-10 shots in one stretch late in the game, which allowed them to turn a 63-53 deficit into a tie game and then a 69-62 triumph.

While 'The U' has the spirit and electricity of a 'One for the Ages' comeback that won't soon be forgotten by those who witnessed it yesterday, the Tar Heels will have just about everything else in its favor when the two teams take the court Friday.

UNC is a well-rested team that's had time over the past several days to fine-tune itself and prepare for the Hurricanes, and they'll be playing in what will almost amount to a home game atmosphere, with thousands of Tar Heel blue bloods playing hookey from work today to make their way to Greensboro.

Frank Haith's team gave Carolina fits in Coral Gables back on January 26 before Harrison Barnes nailed a clutch three-pointer in the final minute to propel the Tar Heels to its second straight victory at the time coming off the much-noted Georgia Tech loss.

In a way, that win down at Miami in late January was a springboard for this North Carolina team, which was clearly at a crossroads coming off the embarrassing performance in Atlanta and the subsequent hard-fought win at home over Clemson.

If UNC had lost to Miami that night, one can only wonder how it could have affected the team's psyche and spirit heading into a rough stretch of midseason games.

But as it turned out, the Miami win ignited Carolina into arguably its best stretch of the entire year, when they blew out N.C. State at home and then shot better than 55 percent in back-to-back lopsided victories over Boston College and Florida State.

Naturally you can't attribute the Miami win entirely to those other triumphs, but the fact that Carolina was reeling coming off the debacle at Georgia Tech and the Hurricanes were the next game on the ACC road schedule, it was simply a contest that the Tar Heels could not afford to lose.

And looking back, things could have really been a whole lot different if that night in Coral Gables hadn't gone their way.

But this UNC squad kept getting better and better and the wins kept piling up---culminating in last Saturday night's fulfilling win over Duke and today's draw as the top seed in the league tournament.

At this moment the Tar Heels have everything going for them---and with Pittsburgh's buzzer-beating loss to Connecticut yesterday in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament, there's even more to play for this weekend than previously imagined.

It appears now that the ACC Tournament champion, if its North Carolina or Duke, has a very good chance of earning a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

But of course there's always the chance that Carolina comes into today's game and plays flat.

They've been off for several days from the atmosphere, pageantry, and adrenaline kick of the game environment---despite the practice sessions in Chapel Hill---and anyone that knows basketball has to understand the realistic possibility that the Tar Heels could come out and not play its best game today.

Especially against a Miami squad coming off such a thrilling win yesterday.

Clearly Miami has to have some residual momentum coming off such an improbable and, let's just say it, miraculous win on Thursday.

It wouldn't be the first time.

Playing without Rashad McCants in the 2005 conference tourney, UNC actually trailed at halftime against Clemson before rallying late in the second half and going on to a win.

The same thing happened in 2009, as the two-time defending ACC Tournament champion Heels fell victim to a sluggish performance against Virginia Tech without the point guard wizardry of Ty Lawson.

This time around the Tar Heels won't have the services of Reggie Bullock, who is lost for the season with a knee injury.

Bullock was a vital cog of this team's rotation and is clearly missed, but one can argue his presence won't be missed nearly as much with this team as McCants and Lawson were on those '05 and '09 teams that went on to lose in the ACC semifinals before going on to win NCAA titles.

In terms of the gameplay itself, Miami stands to compete well with Carolina if they can convert three-pointers in transition.

If Malcolm Grant, Durand Scott, and some of the other long-range bombers for Miami are connecting, that's really the one way that the 'Canes could make things hairy for the Tar Heels.

And it could very well happen.

UNC obviously figures to try and run, and Miami has absolutely no chance if they come back today and only make a couple of field goals for a large percentage of a half.

No way they can beat the Tar Heels if they shoot as atrociously as they did for most of the second half against UVa, but the scary thing about this Miami club is its ability to score points in bunches.

Much has been said about UNC head coach Roy Williams and what might be perceived as a less-than-enthusiastic attitude about the ACC Tournament.

He's called it the 'World's Biggest Cocktail Party,' and in so many ways he's absolutely right.

But this year, given everything that's gone down, there is much more incentive to play well and to try to win the thing.

Unlike those '05 and '09 seasons---not to mention other years---a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed is far from an absolute given this year for the Tar Heels.

UNC cannot afford to give the NCAA Selection Committee the ammunition to potentially drop them down to a No. 3 seed---which realistically could happen if the Heels laid an egg against the 'Canes.

Also, UNC wants to absolutely make sure they can lock up a draw in Charlotte for the first two rounds---and realistically if they take care of business and beat Miami on Friday, that should be there for them regardless of what happens over the weekend.

The ball is in Carolina's court, quite literally.

The second season begins in a few short hours.








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