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February 11, 2012

Heels try to bounce back

Bouncing back is not what Carolina dreamed it would have to do when it held a 10-point lead with 2 minutes and 38 seconds left against Duke on Wednesday night.

Nevertheless, when Austin Rivers nailed a 3-point shot at the buzzer to shock Carolina with an 85-84 victory, the Tar Heels found themselves needing recuperate and do so quickly.

Now the fifth-ranked Tar Heels (20-4, 7-2 in the ACC) must find a way to overcome that bitter disappointment, and to do so in a hurry against a strong Virginia team.

"We're extremely disappointed," Coach Roy Williams said. "There is no question about that. You go back and look at every single possession: Why did we do that? Why did we do this?

"So you really look into it and see if you can learn from it. You hope you learn from it in a positive way that you become more determined."

Williams tried his best early in his postgame news conference to smooth the jagged reality of the loss, repeatedly crediting Duke. Toward the end of his question-and-answer session, however, his true feelings poured out as he looked ahead, not so much specifically to today's 1 p.m. home game against a genuinely excellent Virginia team (19-4, 6-3) but overall.

"The only good you can take from it is to become more determined," Williams said, his voice becoming more animated with each word. "You ought to be ticked off. You ought to be flat-out ticked off. That is the best language I can use. If you start wallowing in the sorrow for yourself and feeling fricking sorry yourself, you ought to just go home.

"My team better, by god, had better come back and decide they are going to become better," Williams continued as the anger from just below his controlled exterior continued to surface. "We lost a game we could have won. If we don't learned something from that and come back and be more determined, then I have the wrong group. And I don't think I have the wrong group. If we start lying around and saying, 'Oh, my ankle is hurting, my knee is hurting, my hip is hurting,' get your butt out of the locker room. We're going to come back and go to work. That is the way we had better look at it."

Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, they are going to be without yet another of their guards. Freshman P.J. Hairston of Greensboro has been wearing a protective boot because of a sore left foot and will not play. He is the third guard who will be sitting on the bench in a suit rather than a uniform.

Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland are already out for the season with knee injuries.

This team still has enough depth and talent to defeat Virginia, but to win any game from hereon out, Carolina must begin to rid itself of bad habits. Tops among those is the tendency to coast with a lead rather than try to beat a team by an ever larger margin.

When Carolina built a 10-point lead, rather than try to beat Duke by 20 points, the Tar Heels went one-on-one at the offensive end, stopped boxing out on the defensive end and, most of all, lost their concentration and poise.

This is not a one-game event, either. This behavior has become an ingrained habit developed through the course of the season.

As with all things in life, the only real control Carolina has with any of this is how it responds, as Williams said. Fans can blame the referees, but there should not be one coach or player in the UNC locker room who believes that nonsense.

The fifth-ranked Tar Heels aided and abetted the enemy in those final minutes.

Virginia is a good team capable of handing the Tar Heels a second consecutive defeat if Carolina does not follow Williams' prescription for healing and improving.

Just remember, what UNC does from here to March will determine the Tar Heels' fate in the NCAA Tournament. Wednesday proved no lead is safe if Carolina takes it for granted and loses its poise as the spread begins to evaporate.

Today will be a new beginning toward correcting its flaws or just another step toward eventual disappointment.


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