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February 26, 2012

Heels epitomize versatility

One of the finest developments in the evolution of the seventh-ranked North Carolina basketball team is the Tar Heels can now find a way to win, given the circumstances of a particular day.

"It helps to remain calm," said senior Tyler Zeller, who led Carolina with 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting and 6-of-6 at the free-throw line in a 54-51 victory at Virginia. "You get down, you know you still have a chance until the end. You just have to keep chipping away until the end. At the four-minute mark, you have to be extremely focused and do everything perfect."

The Tar Heels (25-2, 12-2 in the ACC) were not perfect, but they were good enough.

In defeating Virginia (21-7, 8-6) on Saturday in Charlottesville, Va., the Cavaliers' quagmire style of play sucked UNC's offense beneath the surface and nearly suffocated it. It seems that no matter who the coach is for the Cavaliers, playing Virginia in Charlottesville is like this, particularly for Duke and Carolina.

The Tar Heels shot 33 percent and won. Duke has done the same thing on more than one occasion.

When push comes to shove, usually the Cavaliers are doing the shoving. As usual, the strategy paid off in the home atmosphere, at least in keeping the game winnable. Ultimately, however, Virginia did not succeed because UNC is versatile enough to win with defense and rebounding - and by tossing in a few key baskets.

In the previous game against N.C. State, UNC put on a show of near perfect offensive execution in the second half. If every player on the team had to foul out, Virginia was not going to let that happen on Saturday.

"It was physical," said UNC sophomore Harrison Barnes, who went 3-of-15 from the floor. "They came out ready to play. I think this team is under the radar, but I think it is one of the best teams in the ACC. They are great defenders.

"With their tempo, they're going to make you work on defense," Barnes said. "They're going to move the ball around, move on offense. When they're on defense, they're going to put a lot of pressure on the wings and make you take bad shots."

Yet as in life, the key is to seek the hidden benefit in unpleasant situations. What the Tar Heels should be able to take from Saturday's victory at Virginia is another lesson in winning a Wisconsin-style of game, the kind that feels all too much like an infected tooth for 40 minutes.

This will be blue print for at least some of the games Carolina plays in the NCAA Tournament and maybe even in the ACC Tournament.

Teams simply cannot allow the Tar Heels to dominate defensively as they do and then run the floor at a breakneck pace. UNC would roll to the national championship as they did in 2009 if they are able to get away with that.

"It's a little frustrating, but it helps us develop our half-court game," Barnes said of Virginia's style. "Get the ball inside and capitalize on it."

The difference with this team is that is does not live in the same neighborhood with the '09 team when it comes to scoring. This group has more missed shots within three feet of the basket than any other top 15 team in the nation.

But just getting to within three feet of the basket against the Tar Heels' defense is a achievement. And for most teams, they can just forget about matching UNC on the boards.

Virginia had to trade something to keep Carolina from running freely, so practically the entire Cavalier team on the floor, on any given possession, turned and ran back on defense once a teammate shot the ball. To try to stay and rebound would have more than likely resulted in a 20-point UNC victory instead of having a shot to tie the game at the end the way the Cavaliers did.

"They're long and when you get into the lane and think you have something they will alter the shot or bother it," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. "We got to the lane, but we didn't get many post-ups. They're hard to score against.

"They're hard for us to offensive rebound against because their transition is so good," Bennett said. "So we're not going to get many of those offensive rebounds."

There are only a handful of teams in the country -- a Kentucky or Syracuse or Ohio State - that cannot make the same statement. Others just do not have the same quality of athlete on the interior that the Tar Heels possess.

Which means the Tar Heels can expect some brutally physical games in the near future.


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