Heels Hoping Third Time's a Charm

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The 10th-ranked Tar Heels have encountered two hostile road environments so far this season, allowing their composure to be shaken for periods of time in both losses. North Carolina travels into enemy territory once again on Saturday hoping for a different result.

There were foretelling signs available in the Tar Heels' first contest away from the Smith Center this season that composure – or lack thereof – may become a topic of conversation during the month of December.

At Madison Square Garden on Nov. 19, UNC methodically built a 19-point lead and still held a 15-point advantage with four minutes to play in regulation. But the Buckeyes charged back with a 22-9 run, capitalizing on Larry Drew's four missed free throws in the final 49 seconds to creep back to within two points with 11 seconds remaining.

The Tar Heels squeaked out a narrow victory that evening in front of a neutral crowd, but the players elected to focus on the positives of holding off a talented squad like OSU instead of the questions surrounding the near-fatal late-game breakdown.

One night later, in what was essentially North Carolina's first road game against Syracuse in front of an orange-colored Garden crowd, the composure bells rang loudly. The Tar Heels led the Orange 39-37 at the break, but Jim Boeheim's squad knocked down 11 of their first 15 shots to blow the game open with a 25-3 run.

UNC's first four second-half possessions included two air balls and two poor passes that resulted in turnovers. The Heels missed their first 13 field goal attempts and coughed up five turnovers before stymieing Syracuse's spurt.

Fifteen days later, a similar composure lapse occurred against Kentucky at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats utilized a 28-2 first-half run by connecting on 11-of-14 shots while forcing North Carolina to commit eight turnovers with a handful of head-scratching shots for good measure.

UNC lost both of those games by a combined 18 points. In those two game-deciding runs, the Tar Heels were outscored by 48 points – 53-5.

Sophomore forward Tyler Zeller indicated during Friday's press conference that preventing such breakdowns requires first-hand experience as well as work in practice and meetings.

"Some of it is experience where you've just got to learn to be able to deal with it and come back," Zeller said. "When they start going on a run, you've got to calm down, slow down and do what we do and find a way to score. Whereas [in those games], we kind of went one-on-one a little bit and just got out of our rhythm. It takes a little experience, but at the same time, we've just got to be smarter and be able to end the runs."

When Roy Williams was asked about his team's ability to handle opponents' runs on the road, the seventh-year UNC head coach took the question as an opportunity to answer his critics about his refusal to use timeouts to break up such momentum swings.

"Everybody says, ‘Well, why doesn't he call a timeout?'" Williams said. "Basically because by God I don't want to. That's the bottom line. We've done pretty doggone well with me being stubborn about it. I think my teams usually react pretty well."

The crème de la crème of that category resides in his decision not to call a timeout in the 2008 Final Four until Kansas had built a 38-12 lead.

Against Syracuse, UNC's first timeout was called after Wesley Johnson drilled a 3-pointer to extend the Orange's spurt to 20-1. Against Kentucky, Williams used a timeout after a Larry Drew jumper that stopped the initial 16-0 run, but the Wildcats scored 12 straight points after the teams returned to the court.

"It's part of growing," Williams said. "You screwed it up, you got us into this position. I've been sitting over here doing the same thing I always do, so you get us out of this. In my opinion, teams gain a heck of a lot from being able to handle that."

Williams pointed out that he didn't call a timeout during Tyrese Rice's 34 first-half barrage against UNC at Chestnut Hill in March 2008. The sharpshooter outscored the Tar Heels 20-10 during one early stretch.

"You know what I did?" he said. "I sat right there and I said, ‘By God, they ain't going to let me go out and guard him, you've got to guard him better.' So what happened? They got through it, they understood it and we came back and won the game."

While Williams doesn't believe that timeouts are the instant cure that many of his critics think they are, he does mix things up with substitutions and takes advantage of television timeouts to curb any potentially-damaging runs.

There's no doubt that the Tar Heels have gained confidence in knowing that they can get up off the mat following a 28-2 run by Kentucky to cut the lead to a one-possession game, but the true key to success is in never allowing those spurts to occur in the first place.

That confidence will be tested on Saturday against a Texas team with a resume full of prolonged runs on the season, including impressive marks of 21-0 (UC Irvine), 17-0 (Iowa), 14-3 (Pittsburgh), 16-3 (Rice) and 21-6 (USC).


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