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There were plenty of people wondering if North Carolina deserved its No. 4 national ranking heading into the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer. With two games against other members of the top-25, this tournament would answer significant questions about Roy Williams' seventh unit in Chapel Hill.
So far, so good.
The Tar Heels jumped out to a 29-13 lead midway through the first half behind a suffocating defensive effort, and that lead eventually grew to 19 with 10:21 remaining in regulation. But the Buckeyes rediscovered their intensity over the final four minutes, charging from 15 down with a 22-9 spurt to cut UNC's lead to just two points with 11 seconds left to play.
Larry Drew (11 points, eight assists, four turnovers) drained two free throws to push North Carolina's margin back to four, and William Buford missed a 3-pointer with one second left to end Ohio State's hopes.
Deon Thompson led UNC with 15 points and 12 rebounds, while Will Graves (14 points, five rebounds) and Marcus Ginyard (13 points, three steals) also posted double-digit scoring nights. Evan Turner (23 points) and Jon Diebler (17) guided the Buckeyes' efforts.
North Carolina shot 49.1 percent (26-of-53) from the floor, while Ohio State knocked down 42.6 percent (26-of-61) of its attempts. The Buckeyes won the rebounding battle, 37-33.
INSIDE THE GAME
Rising to the Occasion
Thursday night was supposed to be more difficult for North Carolina. After all, it was the first challenge for a squad replacing four starters from its national championship unit. Ohio State was the team with all five returning starters, as well as another player in David Lighty that red-shirted the '08-'09 season after starting as a sophomore.
There was every reason for the Tar Heels to struggle out of the gates in this grandest of basketball venues in the heart of Manhattan. But instead, North Carolina looked eerily similar to the '08-09 squad that feasted on adversity for long stretches on Thursday.
"It says a lot about this team – the poise that we had to start the game off so well and to give the lead up and still hold on at the end," Ginyard said. "I think it's a great experience for us to have to go through that here, in New York City in a big venue like this against a big-time ball club… We've just got to learn from this and build from it."
Sure, the Tar Heels also played sloppy in stretches, especially in the last five minutes when Ohio State nearly erased Carolina's 19-point lead. And as much as Roy Williams would prefer those roller coaster moments not to happen, it's practically inevitable for a roster loaded with inexperienced underclassmen.
Drew served as the ideal microcosm for his club, slow and steady with minimal bumps and bruises for most of the night. But then adversity struck with 49 seconds left and Carolina clinging to a 73-65 lead. The California native went to the line and missed two free throws.
Ohio State responded by draining a 3-pointer, and Drew was fouled again, this time making only one of his two opportunities. He was fouled once more after Turner cut the deficit to 74-70, and again the point guard hit only one of his two chances.
But what most casual fans will take away from Thursday night is that when his team needed him most – leading 75-73 with 11 seconds left – Drew stepped to the line and buried the Buckeyes' chances for a glorious comeback.
"I liked our competitiveness tonight," Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference. "The first three games we were okay, but last Sunday we weren't very tough mentally or physically, and I thought we were tonight."
An Early (and Deciding) Run
It wasn't the speed burst spurt that we've seen in recent years, nor was it the dagger of overpowering talent that was so intimidating to so many opponents, but North Carolina's 26-11 run to start Thursday's game – lasting all of 12 minutes and 51 seconds – was a methodical blend of balance and pressure.
Eight Tar Heels scored during that initial stretch as UNC connected on 9-of-16 field goal attempts. The Buckeyes, on the other hand, missed 15 of their first 20 shots despite slowing the tempo down to their desired Big Ten sleep-walking-in-molasses speed. Ohio State only managed to pull down three offensive rebounds during UNC's run, two coming on the same possession under the rim.
Debunking a Stat Line
Evan Turner's stat line heading into this semifinal round bordered on the ridiculous, as the junior was averaging 19 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists per outing. At 6-foot-7, 210 pounds, he has proven throughout his career to be a dangerous matchup, especially now that he's taken over a bulk of OSU's point guard duties.
But it just so happens that this North Carolina squad possesses what the national championship team did not – a healthy Marcus Ginyard.
The senior wing set the defensive tone early against Turner, harassing him to the point where he forced plays that weren't there. As the Tar Heels built a 38-24 halftime lead, all Turner had to show for it was six points on 3-of-7 shooting and five turnovers.
"(I was) just trying to do everything you can to make him uncomfortable," Ginyard said. "Not to give him anything easy. Not to give him a free run to the backboard. Just try to be there every time he has the ball and just be a pain in the [backside]."
Turner ended up posting his second triple-double of the season, albeit not the kind he wanted – 23 points, 11 rebounds and 10 turnovers that included two player-control fouls.