The feature characters were freshmen Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants and sophomores Jawad Williams (13 points, four assists), and Melvin Scott – each of whom played a role they are becoming more familiar with. The result was a 90-74 victory over Wyoming on Monday night in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament at the Dean Smith Center.
"First of all, I just want to thank the crowd," UNC coach Matt Doherty said. "For 20,000 people to come in here and cheer us on, I think that is a credit to Dean Smith, Bill Guthridge, all the great players and great teams that we've had here before us and to our guys for the way they play."
Felton, UNC's playmaker extraordinaire, was at his remarkable best. His excellent defense and 15 points were just part of the story, but his 14 assists – a UNC single-game freshman record – was the theme. Felton dished alley-oop jams to David Noel, sweet dishes to McCants, and delivered nifty dumps to Williams. He also fed Scott for a variety of fast-break assists that left many Carolina mouths open in awe.
"He's such an amazing player," Noel said. "He has such a handle on things. He has great confidence and we feed off that. There's nothing he can't do."
Doherty said it comes from within.
"He has all the clichés," Doherty said about how to describe Felton, whose assist total set a single-game NIT record. "The heart of a lion, his toughness, his enthusiasm, his competitiveness is contagious and I think that spreads to our guys."
Despite the final comfortable margin and the numerous highlight-film plays by the youthful Heels, the Cowboys (21-11) made sure Carolina (19-15) didn't get too full of itself. The Pokes turned a 59-37 deficit into a 61-58 game in just 7:13 by stepping up its defense, which was a step behind much of the game, and draining perimeter shots. The Heels also may have relaxed a bit.
"Teams make runs. That happens in basketball," said McCants, who finished with 20 points for the 11th time this season.
But the Tar Heels responded like a maturing team should, outscoring the Mountain West Conference team 15-2.
McCants said the team is learning.
"I think we've gotten better from learning from our experiences and not let guys come back and win games and keep the lead," the Asheville native said.
Williams drilled a 3-pointer for a 64-58 lead, Felton converted a double-pump fast-break layup a la Phil Ford style, and Scott, who had a career high 20 points, went to work.
He drained a pair of 3s and converted a fast-break layup off a feed from Felton. After a Noel slam and a Pokes' bucket, Scott scored on the break again, and UNC was up 80-65 with 4:41 remaining and the game was basically over.
"Melvin's confidence has been building up," Felton said about Scott. "He wasn't getting much playing time (early in the year), but Melvin's a great player. He's worked through his hard times and it's showing now.
"He's a great shooter, a good defender, and he's a great person off the court, too."
Wyoming was led by guard Donta Richardson's 20 points. Monster center Uche Nsonwu-Amadi had 17 points and eight rebounds, and Jay Straight added 12.
Noel finished with 13 points and seven rebounds for the Heels, and as a team Carolina had 27 assists, seven blocked shots, and 11 steals.
But despite it being the NIT, tonight was about Carolina basketball. It was a celebration of sorts, like Doherty said after the game, of what UNC hoops represents. Many of those in attendance aren't regulars at the Dean Dome. They were there early and stayed until the final second. They were loud, spirited, and many were students donning Carolina colors sitting near the floor.
"The crowd was great," Noel said. "We had what, 20-something thousand tonight? That's unbelievable. That our fans would drive so far and support us in the NIT is great. We love our fans and we're going to try and continue to win for them."
And it was about Felton, whose mannerisms appear more and more like the legendary Ford, of whom many consider the greatest Heel ever. In fact, the Latta, S.C. native gave the rowdy crowd a taste of what a future legend may look like.
With the victory, UNC will play Georgetown, which defeated Providence Monday night, in the NIT Quarterfinals at home on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. The game will be televised by ESPN2.
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He also covers the ACC for the Wilmington Star-News/Morning Star and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.