Carolina dominates -- again

NEW YORK – Finally, North Carolina's basketball team can celebrate something. <br><br> When coach Matt Doherty put on an Owens Corning Preseason NIT championship t-shirt, reality sunk in that not only was this a different club than last year's 8-20 outfit, but a pretty darn good one with increasingly greater aspirations.

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In two nights this week on basketball's grandest stage, UNC took down a pair of college basketball's most successful programs over the last decade, culminating in tonight's 74-57 victory over Stanford before a crowd of 11,718 at Madison Square Garden to earn UNC (5-0) its first tournament championship of any kind in nearly two years.

"Our guys are trying to learn how to cut down nets and hopefully we get to do that a few times this year," Doherty said. "I said this the other day, how proud I am of the guys."

For the most part, tonight's triumph was a breeze.

After trading baskets, Carolina broke away from a 7-7 tie and quickly built a 17-7 lead, keyed by a pair of 3-pointes from Jackie Manuel and Raymond Felton (16 points, seven assists, two steals). Due mainly to excellent man-to-man defense and solid ball movement, the Tar Heels continued to add to their lead, going up 23-11 on another Felton 3-pointer and forged a 9-0 run to take a 37-17 lead with 5:58 left in the half.

Most impressive is that the Heels did this with tournament MVP Rashad McCants (18 points) on the bench with a pair of fouls, center Sean May scoring just two points in the opening period, and reserves Melvin Scott and David Noel logging quality minutes.

"My job, our job is to keep things running smoothly," Scott said about the role of a substitute. "David, Byron (Sanders), Will (Johnson), Jon (Holmes), me, we have to not let up and if we can try to extend a lead or cut into one. I think our defense was why we did our job tonight."

But the Cardinal responded with a quick 11-0 run of their own, and had life despite trailing 39-31 at the intermission.

"Teams are going to go on runs," Felton said. "But you have to be strong, mature and respond to it. And we did. But, everyone goes on runs, and they are a good team and played well."

But the Tar Heels opened the second half extending the margin to 48-33 and then 54-41, thanks to a splendid 10-point burst by McCants. The freshman from Asheville finished with 41 points in New York, but took his personal success in stride, talking about team success instead, and how he contributes to victories like this one.

"I have a lot of confidence in our team and it's no surprise to me that we can come in here and win it," McCants said. "I don't have to score a lot, I didn't in the first half yet we were up. But if there is an opportunity that comes through our team, I am going to take it for the team."

The lead grew as high as 19 in the second half at 63-44 after Jawad Williams found Manuel (14 points, seven rebounds, three assists, three steals) cutting to the basket for a left-handed layup with 10:50 left. The score prompted Stanford coach Mike Montgomery to call timeout.

"I thought more offense tonight in that I took more shots," Manuel said. "But really, the shots were just there."

Carolina struggled over the next 8:05, scoring only three points, but its defense, which is the team's primary strength, kept Stanford at a distance, and the Heels salted the game away.

"That's one thing we are going to come out and play every night," Scott said about UNC's defense. "No matter how off we are, we are going to play D, we are going to give it 100 percent of the time.

Stanford shot 33.9 percent from the field and just 5-22 from 3-point range

"That's how championships are won – defense," the sophomore from Baltimore continued. "And we exhibited that tonight. Just played great defense and made them uncomfortable in many ways. We hang our hat on that every night."

And considering Stanford pounded UNC on the glass to the tune of a 46-31 advantage (18-9 offensive), they better play well defensively.

"We just played hard defense," Felton said about UNC's effort that resulted in Stanford having just seven assists but an alarming 21 turnovers. "Great offense at times, but it was defense. We defended well on the perimeter, and we got some opportunities in the open court because our defense, which is the key of our team."

Josh Childress and Julius Barnes led the Cardinal (4-1) with 17 points each.

Williams had nine points and three assists for UNC.

So much of the story of this young season could be seen on the floor of this hallowed building. Doherty joining his players in celebration, wearing the tight t-shirt over his button-down shirt and tie, looking like a man with a new lease on life. And that just might be fitting, too. New players, new results, and a new way about the third-year coach.

"(He's been) very patient with the team," Scott said about Doherty. "He's been energetic at the same time, but he's down to earth as a person too. He doesn't always act like a coach, he sometimes acts like our bigger brother, and that's been a key in us bonding together and responding to him well and how can all relate."

The season is young and in normal years UNC wouldn't get too caught up in such a triumph. But considering last winter, who could blame Doherty for wearing the shirt, or the Tar Heels for ranking this as a significant accomplishment.

"It's pretty big," senior Will Johnson said about the NIT title. "Going to the Final Four (in 2000) was obviously the biggest. No. 1 ranking and beating Duke my sophomore year was big. But this ranks up there. Beating Kansas. Beating Stanford. With young kids like this, man, it's exciting."

Few would argue.

Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at:

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