The Art of Closing

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – In 2008, North Carolina held a fourth-quarter lead in 12 of its 13 ball games. The Tar Heels' inability to close out four of those contests was due to a variety of reasons, including defensive lapses and failed offensive execution. But against Connecticut on Saturday, No. 19 UNC found a way to close on the road.

If you're wondering how North Carolina rallied from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit, consider these statistics over the final 16 minutes of play. On UNC's final three drives, the Tar Heels tallied 148 yards on 29 plays that resulted in 10 points. On UConn's final three possessions, the Huskies ran 10 plays and actually lost a yard, while coughing up the game-winning safety with one minute and 32 seconds remaining in regulation.

David Mamet may have coined the phrase "coffee is for closers" in his Glengarry Glen Ross screenplay, but there is also something to be said for experience, maturity, conditioning and execution.

UNC head coach Butch Davis joined quarterback T.J. Yates and free safety Deunta Williams on Monday in addressing the final stanza of Saturday's contest, and each Tar Heels pointed to a different reason behind the victory.

"Sometimes the maturity of your football team gets tested in games like that," Davis said. "It's one of the best examples that I've seen where things are going wrong and the defense is like, ‘Hey, we've got them. We'll keep stopping them.' And nobody started pointing fingers at anybody."

Yates elected to praise strength and conditioning coach Jeff Connors and his brutal offseason workout regiment.

"I felt that we were in really good condition," Yates said. "We weren't tired at all in the fourth quarter, and I think they might have been a little winded because we had two really long drives. In that second drive, I think we had them tired and had them on their heels."

The third-year starting signal caller admitted that he could tell his own teammates were tired when the Tar Heels took the field down 10-3 with 9:12 left on the clock. But everybody gets tired. It's overcoming that fatigue that's the difficult part.

"I pointed out to them that I knew that they were tired and that I knew that we had worked so hard in the offseason conditioning that it was going to pay off for us," Yates said. "We just had to keep pushing through, because we probably wouldn't have any other chance to score, so we had to do it [then]."

Up until that point, North Carolina's ragtag group of offensive linemen had been abused by UConn's steady defensive front, but with the game on the line, the big uglies grinded out holes for Ryan Houston. In a span of six plays, UNC ran the same running play five times, churning out 30 yards along the way.

Williams joined Yates in pointing to conditioning as playing a big role, saying, "In the fourth quarter, we were all fresh. We knew something was going to happen. We were just waiting for the opportunity to make it happen."

But the third-year starting safety also indicated that trust and execution were key elements in the victory, as well.

"It was hard to go out on the field [down] 10-0 – it was hard to do that," Williams said. "But as a veteran group, I think we knew that things were going to get started as long as we held our end of the bargain down. We didn't want it to get to 17-0 and now they've got to start making mistakes or [the offense] having to do something that they're not used to doing… They guys that we had in were disciplined – nobody was trying to make the play. I think that everybody was just doing their assignment and fortunately for us, they messed up."

Williams suggested that North Carolina's defensive line likely would not have been able to create the safety score two seasons ago, when only five or six linemen were playing as opposed to the nine or ten that took the field in East Hartford.

Obviously, one victory is never enough to anoint the Tar Heels as a group that has cleared the hurdle of closing and will now be expected to win every down-to-the-wire ball game. But success breeds success, and the ability to win in a difficult setting will only inspire this squad in the tight contests likely to come this season.

Next up is East Carolina, which has struggled in the second half of its first two ball games. The Pirates have gained a total of 127 yards on 52 plays after intermission in a win over Appalachian State and a loss to West Virginia. On the other side of the field, those two opponents combined for 404 yards on 84 plays, producing a point total difference of 31-2.

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