North Carolina Ready for High Stakes Rematch With Duke
Williams and his players will see Duke soon enough -- six days later, in the same building, the Smith Center. And because of the results of the games Saturday and Sunday, the chances are excellent that the game will decide the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season champ, as well as the usual bragging rights on Tobacco Road. Both Duke -- ranked first in the nation going into the weekend -- and 19th-ranked North Carolina have to get past one more conference game before meeting in prime time to decide it all.
Of course, after Virginia Tech beat Duke, North Carolina had to handle another opponent immediately, and it did, decisively. Maryland needed this game as much as, or more than, the Tar Heels thanks to its precarious NCAA bubble positioning -- and the Terps got simultaneously run over and swatted away, 87-76. No getting caught up in the moment or overlooking opponents for this group, not this season and not lately.
"We all woke up this morning and we were told about the game,'' said Barnes, the freshman, who set the tone by knocking down three three-pointers in the game's first four minutes. "And that was great and all, but we knew we had to come out here today and play our game. Because if (Duke) lost and we lost, then we're in the same position we were in. We knew this was a big game for us, and we had to come out and win.''
The Heels have been winning just fine lately. They lost the week before Christmas to Texas, and since then they've won 15 of 17. Their last lost was at Duke, but they've won five straight since. Their previous loss was early in the ACC season, a 20-point throttling at home to Georgia Tech that still defies logic. It also raised the questions about whether this team really was past last year, the 17-loss disaster.
"You lose a couple of games in November and December, and people kind of stop talking about you,'' Maryland coach Gary Williams pointed out, before calling North Carolina, sure to move up in the polls this week, "a top-12, top-15 team.''
North Carolina's sights are higher, though -- even as the coach and players try to keep them from scanning too far.
"I've always been told that to make all birdies, you have to make the first one. So we want to make the first one," Williams said.
Barnes couldn't agree more with his coach.
"We've been working all season to make sure we get to this position," Barnes said. "And it's been a struggle. We definitely had times where we didn't think we could do it. But now we're in this position and we just have to seize the moment."
Barnes' words were as mature as his game was (most of the night, at least). The same went for fellow freshman Kendall Marshall, handed the point guard reins in late January and handling both them and the still-perplexing withdrawal of former starter Larry Drew II with a levelheadedness beyond his years. Marshall finished with 10 assists and exactly one basket, that with eight minutes left and after the Tar Heels (22-6, 12-2) had already gone ahead by 17. Marshall totaled six points on 1-for-3 shooting. Three shots and 10 assists for a freshman point guard.
He and fellow starting guard Dexter Strickland combined for 18 assists and one basket, a striking display of unselfishness and focus, although Strickland took a little longer to get the message, missing four shots in the first half and going 0-for-6 overall.
Everybody in the home whites played smart, it seemed. John Henson lamented that his 3-for-10 shooting should have been better, before being reminded that a bunch of his misses were tip and putback attempts from his five offensive rebounds. "Yeah,'' he cracked, "I should have gotten some of those in.'' So all the lanky 6-foot-10 sophomore did was miss a triple-double by three blocked shots, going for 10 points, 15 boards and seven rejections, five blocks in the first half.
Seven-foot Tyler Zeller scored 25 points, 14 in the first half. Leslie McDonald came off the bench to ring up three threes. Barnes, off and on after his early hot streak, strung together six points in a minute and a half to break open a close game midway through the second half and push the Heels' lead to double figures, where it stayed until the closing minutes. And all of this while Maryland (18-11, 7-7) -- again, fighting for its NCAA lives, needing a win over a ranked opponent -- kept pushing back, with Terrell Stoglin (28 points) and Jordan Williams (16 points and 19 rebounds, despite being surrounded by too many his size or bigger and after fighting a stomach ailment the night before).
There was nothing about the win that wasn't impressive, on its own, in comparison to earlier in the season or to last season. Roy Williams, as is his routine, found a handful of nits to pick, but that's his job -- and he's doing it exceedingly well this year based on this two-month run.
He'll have a big one to pick, with Florida State on the road looming on Wednesday, waiting to spoil the huge finale (the Seminoles are the other team to have taken out Duke in conference play). After the drama of the weekend, there was no way he would escape the Duke question, but he left listeners with the point that needed to be made.
"Duke's still a fantastic team. I said last year I thought it was the best team they've had since I came back (to North Carolina), and I think this Duke team's even better,'' Williams said. "But what North Carolina's got to do is take care of North Carolina's business.''
North Carolina did so Sunday night, and if it does it one more time, its business will be to make a shocking U-turn from 2009-10 -- when the players and their coach were really sitting at home comfortable, watching everybody else play meaningful games -- and compete against its blood rival for the ACC championship.