UNC's Dexter Strickland celebrates after the Tar Heels' 86-83 victory over Washington. ROBERT WILLETT - firstname.lastname@example.org
updated 5:38 p.m.
CHARLOTTE -- All year long in practice, North Carolina has worked on “must-stop” possessions -- meaning it “must stop” an opponent right then and there in order to win the game.
Sunday at Time Warner Cable Arena, the second-seeded Tar Heels did stop (or at least stymie) No. 7 seed Washington over the last seven minutes, morphing into the solid defensive team that coach Roy Williams has said all season they could be.
As a result of its down-to-the-wire 86-83 victory, UNC (28-7) will play either No. 3 seed Syracuse or No. 11 seed Marquette on Friday in the NCAA Sweet 16, an accomplishment that seemed awful far-fetched a year ago, when the Tar Heels didn’t make the NCAA field at all. The trip to Newark with mark UNC’s record 24th appearance regional semi-finals.
“I just told the team, we’ve come a long ways – from last year, when we were in Starkville [Miss., playing in the NIT], with twin beds,’’ said Tar Heels sophomore John Henson. “It was just a humbling feeling, and I’m glad this year we’re back on top.”
UNC is still playing because it successfully accomplished what it couldn’t so often last season: it tightened its defense when it needed to the most.
The Tar Heels came back from an 11-point first half deficit against the fast-paced, pesky Huskies, only to find itself trailing 74-69, after UW guard C.J. Wilcox made a 3-pointer. But over the last 7:06, all that “must-stop” training kicked in.
There was Henson with 4:15 left, blocking a Darnell Gant layup to set up teammate Harrison Barnes’ 3-pointer at the other end, giving UNC a 78-76 lead.
There was Barnes stealing the ball from Terrence Ross with 2:02 left, then feeding it to teammate Dexter Strickland for an 84-78 cushion.
There was Strickland sticking to star UW guard Isaiah Thomas, who made only one of his shots down the stretch and was 5-for-15 for the game.
And there was the 6-feet-10 Henson with 5.4 seconds left, deflecting Justin Holiday’s inbounds pass into the grasp of Strickland, who was fouled and made two free throws.
“He was so 'long' in front of me; that's why he got it,’’ the 6-6 Holiday said. “I probably should have faked the pass better, then maybe somebody would have been open. I tried to back up, too. But once I got the ball I wasn't really worried about him. I don't know if he had his hands up already, but when I threw it he was up there and it was too late.”
Henson’s long reach almost got the Tar Heels into trouble in the final two seconds. First, he fumbled Huskies guard Venoy Overton’s long heaving shot out of bounds; then, on the ensuing, final, play, he came oh-so-close to committing a goaltending violation on Thomas’ 2-point miss.
But in all, over the final 7:06, the Tar Heels held UW to 4-for-13 shooting, helped force five turnovers and blocked two shots – enough ‘D’ to withstand a team that shot 45.8 percent of the game; out-rebounded the Tar Heels 40-37; and out-scored them on fast break points (18-14) and points in the paint (40-34).
“Our defense has just gotten better and better,’’ said UNC forward Tyler Zeller, who finished with 23 points. “And it was important to us, again.”
Ross led Washington (24-11), which was playing 2,400 miles from home, with 19 points.
Meanwhile, Barnes added 22 points; while Henson (10 points, 10 rebounds) and point guard Kendall Marshall (13 points, 14 assists) finished with double-doubles for the Tar Heels, who now hope their “must-stop” moments on Sunday will be the continuation of something special.
“We buckled down and we played ‘D’ like we were supposed to; that’s how we got the win,’’ Henson said. “…And now, we just have to prepare to do it again.”