January 18, 2008

ACC play exposes character

Now that Carolina has moved exclusively into conference play, the real grind of the season has begun.

The biggest difference on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. (ABC TV) against Maryland (11-7 overall,1-2 in the ACC) is the game will be played inside the Smith Center. The top-ranked Tar Heels (18-0, 3-0) seem to draw as much energy from their home as opponents do theirs.

After edging Clemson 90-88 in overtime in the first conference of the season, which was played on the road, Carolina defeated Georgia Tech 83-82 in another road game on Wednesday.

Both were fights disguised as basketball games.

UNC's toughness is a sign of maturity - and a positive omen for the future. The lack of toughness and poise made a huge difference against Georgetown in the East Region final of the NCAA Tournament last season, when Carolina lost a lead in the final six minutes of the game to eventually lose in overtime.

This is clearly a more mature, competitive group of kids.

"I think the experience of going through things, that maturity, is a key factor, seeing what college basketball is all about," Coach Roy Williams said. "We've had fantastic leadership. The main thing is we haven't had one guy saying, 'I've got to do it.'

"The attitude is 'We have got to do it.' That is the attitude I enjoy the most: one guy not thinking he needs to take the next seven shots. We're having a scenario where we need to get some stops, or we need to get the best shots for our team. All those things have been important."

Williams likes to say he has never seen a poor defensive team in the Final Four.

One could easily add no soft teams make it to Final Four, either. The game is a brutal match of wills and physical wars beneath the basket on almost any half-court possession. If a team fails to play that way, it will get blown away and embarrassed the way Carolina did N.C. State on Jan. 12 when it led 43-13 at the half.

Georgia Tech did just the opposite on Wednesday night in Atlanta. By game's end, Tyler Hansbrough seemed to have blood dripping from all parts of his face. When he wasn't trying to keep the blood out of his mouth, he was smiling as the Tar Heels walked off the court a winner.

These guys are not going to panic and lose easily. They may go down, but as they have now proven by coming from behind in heated, hostile gyms on the road they are going to do all that is possible to find a way to win.

"Last year at this point, things were going the other way," Marcus Ginyard said. "We were losing these close games. It speaks volumes about this team to get that push to put us over the top."

The means to win appears to be many and varied. At Clemson, sophomore guard Wayne Ellington scored 36 points, including a shot for the ages with less than one second remaining on the clock in overtime to clinch it.

Against Georgia Tech, Hansbrough did most of the heavy lifting, but Danny Green/db] also made a huge play by blocking the final, last-gasp effort from point-blank range by the Yellow Jackets. This came after Green had played what Williams described as Green's worst game of the season.

Hansbrough finished with 27 points and 11 rebounds. Ellington scored just seven points, although three of those came on a huge shot down the stretch.

Green may not have taken the shots Williams wanted, but the junior from Long Island, N.Y., made the free throw that put Carolina in the lead. He also had two steals and got an enormous rebound, managing to tip the ball, grab it and stay in bounds on a play the Tar Heels needed desperately.

"Danny has been sensational for us," Williams said.

All of these plays, by just about everyone in a Carolina uniform, including [db]Quentin Thomas and Alex Stepheson, go into toughening a team in the way necessary to win something more meaningful than regular-season games.

People often say one needs some luck along the way, and in the case of UNC that would be in avoiding anymore injuries. Yes, losing Bobby Frasor hurt this team, but it did not cripple Carolina or preclude it from being able to win the ACC and the national championships.

This team is far from perfect. It played defense in the manner of 15-501 in the first half against Georgia Tech by lying down for the Yellow Jackets. But in the final minutes of the game, UNC won with its defense. It won by being tougher.

Carolina's speed and fast break is breathtaking to behold at times, but this newfound toughness and determination are what will make the difference the rest of the way in the ACC and come the postseason in March.

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