Andy: Heels now ready to run

DENVER, Colo. – As a general rule, if your team can advance beyond the first round of the NCAA Tournament, it would be desirable to face another lower-seeded team in the second round.

When Princeton took a 25-22 halftime lead over No. 3-seed Texas in the first game of the night session, most UNC fans were cheering on the upset of historic UNC nemesis Rick Barnes and his heavily favored Longhorns.

That didn't happen as Texas eventually won decisively in the second half. But following the Tar Heels' hard fought 63-52 win over Air Force Thursday at the Pepsi Center, Carolina fans and players were happy to not have to face the Princeton-style offense again, and welcomed a second-round match-up with its higher ranked opponent.

"No, no, not again," Jackie Manuel said. "That's tough to guard. They move the ball, they cut hard and they run the shot clock down to five seconds. Not too many people like to play defense for 35 seconds. So that is what made it so tough."

However for Rashad McCants, who could muster just nine points against the slowdown tactics, it was just another one of life's experiences on the Road to the Final Four.

"It would have been OK," McCants said if Princeton would have won. "But, they lost so we get whomever we have next. It really doesn't matter. We've got to be adjusted to whatever offense or defense is presented to us. We're ready for any kind of challenge."

Carolina was well represented throughout the Pepsi Center crowd, both in its designated seating section and around the NBA arena. But the Tar Heel fans came to watch a basketball game, and what they got early on was an exercise in futility. Forget that UNC had conquered the Princeton-style offense in two wins over N.C. State during the regular-season. In fact, the Falcons, who won the Mountain West conference, ran the Princeton-style offense better than, well, even Princeton itself, which ended up falling to Texas in a strikingly similar manner in the earlier evening match-up.

Air Force suffocated UNC's need to fast break from the game's onset, effectively caging the far superior athletes with its disciplined game plan. While the Carolina fans' yawns turned to trepidation, the Falcons' slowdown strategy kept their fans standing all the way.

In the first half it was all about efficiency. Shots were at a premium, and while Air Force shot 50-percent, including 5-for-13 from three-point-range, the Tar Heels were forced to play from their set offense on practically every possession. And after the two teams exchanged leads nine times in a frustrating nip and tuck affair, until Nick Welch and Jacob Burtschi nailed back-to-back threes just before intermission to send the Falcons to the locker room with their biggest lead of the game at 28-23.

It meant nothing that the Tar Heels had twice as many rebounds, including a 10-0 advantage on the offensive boards. Air Force was making few mistakes and doing exactly what it did best, commanding control of the game – not through shock and awe tactics – but rather executing every advantage it had, while rendering UNC's fruitless.

It didn't help either that the Tar Heels struggled as much to knock down the open short-range jumper almost as much as they did defending the backdoor cut.

"Maybe it was the altitude or maybe it was our adrenaline, but we wanted every shot to go in," Melvin Scott said. "Once we calmed down and relaxed and got to those guys defensively, the offensive end came around."

Trailing 40-38 with 13:16 remaining, David Noel committed his fourth foul against Joel Gerlach, who converted a three and then made the free throw. But May answered on the other end with a conventional three, and then Manuel got free for a dunk to cut the lead to one. Then following a defensive stop, Felton converted his first three after a steal by Sean May to put Carolina up for good at 46-44.

When McCants rebounded a three-point attempt by A.J. Kuhle, Williams wasn't about to let his Tar Heels lose control of the momentum and called a 30-second timeout.

Still, when action resumed, the Air Force defense managed to keep the Tar Heels' offense out high on the perimeter. But with the shot clock down to its final digit, Felton nailed his second-straight three from 23-feet to increase UNC's lead to 49-44 at the 10:23 mark.

Teams that play the Princeton-style offense generally look to get a lead and hold on, while rarely can they come back. Once Carolina broke through – albeit almost too late – the Air Force patience was under attack.

"We're glad it's over, because that team scares you," May said. "That team scares you when you see what they can do offensively and defensively. For a team like us that scores a lot, it was mentally frustrating. Coach just told us you've got to stay in it for the entire game."

Having survived Air Force, the Tar Heels are thankful that they can return to the comfortable up-tempo style on Saturday, even though it means facing No. 3-seeded Texas.

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