Back in Contention

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Less than two weeks ago, North Carolina entered its locker room following a double-digit home loss to Duke that dropped the Tar Heels two games behind the Blue Devils in the ACC standings with sparkplug Ty Lawson sidelined indefinitely with an ankle sprain.

There was plenty of reason for concern in Chapel Hill – in addition to the aforementioned issues, the national media had all but shot down the Tar Heels' national title hopes due to a questionable defense, third-string point guard Quentin Thomas was struggling in adapting to his role as a starter for the first time in his four-year career at UNC, and an injury plague had apparently crept through the Smith Center on a sinister mission.

But something clicked during the latter stages of the 103-93 double-overtime victory against Clemson on Feb. 10th. Thomas hit a driving lay-up to force the first extra session, before connecting on two free throws to extend the game into the second overtime, and the Tar Heels (24-2, 9-2 ACC) held the Tigers to 25 percent shooting in the two additional periods.

North Carolina, resembling an urgent care waiting room more so than a collegiate basketball squad, followed that victory with a gutsy one-point win at Virginia before blowing Virginia Tech out on Saturday by 39 points. Add in a Kansas loss to Texas and a Duke stumble at Wake Forest, and the Tar Heels are ranked third in the nation with a renewed sense of urgency in their fight for the ACC regular season crown and the coveted No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament's East Region – held in Charlotte, N.C.

Thomas' emergence as a senior leader has coupled with the improved defensive play to lift the Tar Heels out of the despair that blanketed the program several weeks ago.

"It hasn't been smooth – I'm one of those guys that likes to score 90-something all of the time," head coach Roy Williams said during Tuesday's press conference when asked about the team's adjustment to Thomas at the point. "With Ty Lawson, you get some easy baskets that is more difficult to get with [Quentin]. That's not saying anything negative, that's just a fact. And I think what we're doing is making adjustments to what we have as opposed to what we don't have."

Defense may be the primary force in North Carolina's ability to tread water amidst the recent adversity. Since their bye week at the end of January, the Tar Heels have held their six opponents to 40 percent shooting, compared with a 42.3 field goal percentage defense in the previous 20 games of the season. While that difference may seem marginal, it is a definite trend toward a more efficient defensive effort.

On Jan. 18th, North Carolina ranked near the bottom of the ACC in field goal percentage defense, and held the No. 38 spot in's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings (89.8 points per 100 possessions) – a full 10 points from national leaders No.1 Memphis and No. 4 Kansas.

As of Tuesday night, the Tar Heels possess the second-best field goal percentage defense (41.9) in league play and have shot up the rankings to No. 21 (88.7) – now only six points behind Kansas in the second spot.

"I wasn't ready to jump off the building when others were about how bad our defense was," Williams said. "I just knew we had to get better and I kept saying along the lines that we would get better... So I'm not ready today to proclaim that we've got the best defensive team that I've ever coached, but I think we're getting better. I've been saying that all along."

But Thomas thinks there is more involved with his team's evolution than just improved point guard play and defense. The Tar Heels were 3-5 in games decided by seven points or less or in overtime during the 2006-07 season. Through 26 games in 2007-08, North Carolina is 6-1 in games decided by four points or less or in overtime.

"I don't think mentally that we were prepared enough [last year]…," Thomas said. "But this year, we've had a lot of close games that – I'm not saying that we would have lost them last year, but I don't know that we would have won them – but this year we've definitely come together and won close games and that shows what type of team that we're capable of being."

But the Tar Heels realize that this two-week grind back into contention is only one mistake away from being rendered irrelevant. And with instate rivals N.C. State and Wake Forest on the schedule this week, North Carolina can ill-afford to look too far into the future.

Lawson (16 points, five assists and no turnovers) played a significant role in the 93-62 blowout against the Wolfpack last month and his harassment of freshman point guard Javier Gonzalez (no points, three assists and three turnovers) was critical in shutting down N.C. State's offense.

Add Lawson's absence this time around to that the fact that head coach Sidney Lowe's squad is hoping to replay last season's 83-79 upset victory against the Tar Heels in Raleigh, and it is clear that continued focus and effort is required if UNC's preseason goals are to be obtained.

"You look at all of their stats, and they're much better at home," Williams said of the Wolfpack. "The crowd really helps them. We know we'll get their best shot."

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