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February 25, 2012

Heels traveled winding journey

"Sometimes the light's all shining on me
Other times I can barely see
Lately it occurs to me
What a long strange trip it's been
-- Truckin', Grateful Dead


North Carolina has traveled a sometimes awkward and often rigorous journey to get where it stands today.

The seventh-ranked Tar Heels can now envision a successful finish to the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season standings. They can actually see themselves alone at the top for a second consecutive season.

Seventh-ranked North Carolina (24-4, 11-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) has three games left, starting with today's at Virginia (21-6, 8-5 ACC) at the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Va., at 4 p.m.

Back when Florida State belted them in Tallahassee, Fla., 90-57, Carolina was more concerned with trying to win the next game rather than being concerned with the standings.

Much the same can be said when Duke overcame a 10-point deficit at the Smith Center with 2 minutes and 38 seconds remaining to earn a stunning victory.

"If we were breathing we were better than we were down there [at FSU]," Williams said. "We are more attentive to the details now. We are more focused. We're more attentive to the intensity level you have to have, mentally and physically."

Senior Tyler Zeller said the new beginning had to start with playing harder and smarter on a consistent basis.

"The biggest thing was our effort," Zeller said. "We were a step or two late. There are things that if you're a half-a-step late, it's too much. But we were a step or two late."

The Tar Heels did receive help from an unlikely source this week. Duke defeated Florida State on Wednesday, leaving UNC and the Blue Devils tied alone in first at 11-2.

As the Tar Heels enter today's game at Virginia, it is interesting to look at how they reached this point.

From the start of the season on an aircraft carrier docked in San Diego until that day in Tallahassee, Carolina made progress as a team but never the kind of solidifying leap ahead necessary to compete for an ACC and national titles.

Too much mundane play and sporadic concentration kept arising when one would hope to see the building of great habits. The team almost seemed bored at times.

The players say they drew closer together and overcame whatever personality differences might have existed. These are human beings, and they are kids who were highly recruited for the most part, kids who were the special players at their high schools and perhaps even in their state before coming to UNC.

Williams said that is too much of a simplification, however, because the game played a championship level in a league such as the ACC requires so much more than togetherness.

One thing is sure. The true construction of this team began in the morass of Tallahassee, a game that saw the coaching staff and most of the players leave the court before the final horn sounded.

"There are so many factors," Williams said. "I don't think it was just team chemistry. We were not ready to play [at Florida State]."

Two other games weigh equally as heavy in the evolution of this team.

Blowing the 10-point lead against Duke had a huge impact on what this team has become. Until that moment, the Tar Heels had a terrible habit of letting up when they got an opponent down.

A new toughness began to show in the next game, which happened to be the first win against Virginia this season. On Feb. 11, UNC defeated the Cavaliers 70-52 at the Smith Center, and the Tar Heels increased the lead when they got the Cavs down.

"That is one thing we haven't done this year, is when we got teams down we haven't stepped on their necks," Marshall said after beating Virginia. "Long Beach State, we got a sizable lead, but they hung around. Georgia Tech, I think we got it up to 25, but they got it down to 12.

"We have to learn to step on teams' necks when we get them down, not give them that hope down the stretch that they can win the game."

The other important moment in this team's development came at Maryland, when the Tar Heels came from behind on the road to win 83-74 in a genuinely hostile environment against a team of players performing from their hearts.

This past Tuesday, the culmination of all this presented itself in an 86-74 victory at N.C. State. No matter what happened, the Tar Heels maintained their poise, their toughness and their focus on executing what they have been taught by Williams and lessons learned through experience.

Today, they will attempt to continue this trend in hopes that one week later they will still have a chance to finish number one if they can beat Duke at Duke.

"If we win out, we can win it, but we have a tough one [at Virginia]," Zeller said. "Maryland is a tough team. And everybody knows Duke is very, very good."


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