Thad: Small improvements equal big difference

"Just that much" – the distance between Roy Williams's fingers – describes the difference between winning and losing in the ACC, and the improvement this North Carolina team had to make to put together its most significant win of the season Sunday evening in Raleigh.

"Just that much" might also describe how close Carolina came to committing a second consecutive dreadful turnover in the final 15 seconds, as Sean May's in-bounds pass nearly got away from Raymond Felton into the hands of N.C. State. Fortunately, Felton got to the ball first and used a beautiful spin move to escape the Pack defense and salt this one away. As a result, Carolina's players and coaching staff can sleep Sunday night knowing for certain that in two weeks the Tar Heels will again be among the invitees to the NCAA Tournament.

No one will remember this victory as a thing of beauty, but they might remember it as the night this group of Carolina players finally demonstrated the poise to withstand a run on the road and answer back with enough big plays of their own. Rashad McCants, continuing to shed the uncomplimentary labels so often thrust upon him, delivered two incredible shots to help UNC recover from a 56-54 deficit and re-establish control, but perhaps the most important possession of the game came moments earlier, just after Marcus Melvin nailed a difficult 3 of his own to put State in front, 52-51.

Hounded once again by tenacious State defense, first McCants and then May found themselves with the ball under pressure in difficult positions. Instead of coughing the ball up yet again, the Heels worked the ball around and found new sixth man Jawad Williams, who nailed an important jumper from the corner – the first made Tar Heel jump shot in the 2nd half.

It would be nice to be able to say that Carolina had capitalized on State's poor first half shooting and McCants's hot hand to not only take a double-digit halftime lead but then go on to win comfortably. It only took a possession or two of the second half to make clear that wasn't going to happen: State is too good, and this Carolina team still too mistake-prone for that to transpire. Maybe this group of players--with help from a new friend or two--will eventually develop into a dominant team that can not only get leads but deliver knockout punches as well long before the final minutes.

But not this year. This is a year for close games and nervous hearts, for hoping the Tar Heels can make just one fewer bad turnover or mental mistake, or if that doesn't happen, that enough players will make enough great plays to get it done. That's what happened Sunday, at last, with Felton's double-clutch drive into the lane at the one minute mark capping a series of clutch plays.

And so North Carolina, playing with all the same flaws and all the same strengths shown in Charlottesville, come out with a stirring win instead of a deflating defeat. Some observers, based on their hyperbolic reactions to the last week, now must try to theorize that all of the sudden this team has heart and effort where it did not just the day before. Not so. This team has laid it all out numerous times this year only to come away with Ls--the difference Sunday was simply that they made more plays when it counted.

By the same token, one win, no matter how big, is not going to solve all this team's issues, particularly in handling the basketball under pressure. But it should give the Tar Heels a badly needed shot of confidence and belief in one another, the priceless commodity that so often separates winners from losers at this level of basketball.

Becoming the first school to win in Raleigh this year and earn a sweep over N.C. State is a very substantial accomplishment, especially with Jackie Manuel missing. Credit Roy Williams's employment of zone defense, a mature performance off the bench from Jawad Williams, good team rebounding and some good plays under duress from Reyshawn Terry as important moments in getting this season back on track and helping dissipate the chorus of naysayers.

So often in sports would-be great teams must endure a period of frustration, a period of being known as "almost men", a period of close losses, before breaking through to become consistent winners. Good coaches know how to separate a rational evaluation of how well a team is playing from the emotions of winning and losing, which is why Williams was able to describe, quite rightly, this Carolina team as being "just this much" away from making the breakthrough in the wake of that difficult Virginia loss.

To be sure, this team has had false dawns before, most recently the huge win in Winston-Salem. Instead of having to risk that newfound confidence straightaway with yet another tough road game, however, this time Carolina gets a chance to consolidate with a home game against Clemson in front of what should be a very appreciative crowd.

For one night at least, these Tar Heels showed they can withstand a hostile environment, a swarming defense, some big shots by the opponent, and their own mistakes to record a great win. Doing so means Carolina will now for certain meet its most fundamental goal of the regular season--qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. It also raises hope that this group, having gotten the taste of beating quality opponents away from home, might duplicate this gutty performance in the tight games that are surely ahead in March.


Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/bookstore.html. You can email Thad at thwilliamson(nospam)@earthlink.net.


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