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March 20, 2011

Carolina squeaks past Washington into Sweet 16

CHARLOTTE - Plenty has been made of North Carolina's team-wide lack of NCAA Tournament experience. But now the Tar Heels know first-hand exactly what March Madness is all about.

And more importantly, how to survive it.

The second-seeded Tar Heels escaped a last-second upset bid to advance past No. 7 seed Washington with an 86-83 win.

"It's a beautiful thing," said John Henson, who recorded his eighth straight double double. "Last year was a humbling experience, and this year we're in the Sweet 16."

Washington's last shot of the game was a long 2-point shot that fell short as time expired.

The relief that washed over the Tar Heels left them feeling like they knew exactly what this time of year was all about.

"It felt like we were playing for a ring on the line, just knowing that we could either practice for another week and go to Newark and have an opportunity to reach the Final Four, or tomorrow you could be having to think about turning your uniform in," Harrison Barnes said. "There's just such a different contrast there. We were trying to use that as our fuel."

There were certainly some tense moments before Carolina could exhale and celebrate.

After Dexter Strickland hit a pair of free throws with 5.4 seconds remaining, Washington's Venoy Overton tried a half-court heave to avoid being fouled by Carolina.

That might have ended the game right there, but the ball slipped through Henson's hands and out of bounds, giving the Huskies one last chance with 0.5 seconds to go.

"It could have been a bigger mistake, but it wasn't," Henson said.

Seconds earlier, with UNC up by a point, Henson had looked like the hero when he tipped an inbounds pass with 7.4 seconds remaining and the ball ended up in Strickland's hands.

"I was kind of nervous because anything could happen," Leslie McDonald said. "You see upsets from half-court shots, from fouls. It can be nerve-wracking. But when you see yourself so close to (a win), all your nerve systems go away."

The Tar Heels (28-7) aren't new to close calls.

This was their 11th win this season of five points or fewer.

"It kind of exploits the stuff you practice," Henson said. "Winning close games like this is a testament to our team's focus and preparation."

But this game - even aside from the fact that it was win or go home - was different.

"Even some of the games that we've won, we've had instances where a guy would try to do it on is own, and I never felt that way today," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "I thought that everybody was working together, everybody was trying to carry out their assignment."

All five UNC starters scored in double figures, led by 23 points from Tyler Zeller. Barnes was right on his heels with 22.

And Kendall Marshall set a Carolina NCAA Tournament record with 14 assists.

From the beginning, the teams were either trading baskets or trading runs.

Washington (24-11) did a lot of its damage from beyond the arc, hitting 10 of 19 shots from 3-point range.

And a lot of those looks were wide open, a fact that maddened Williams.

But there were two defensive bright spots: Strickland on Huskies' guard Isaiah Thomas, and the Tar Heels as a team in the final minutes.

Strickland, with a little help at times, held Thomas to 5-for-15 shooting in the game, leaving Washington to rely on 19 points from Terrence Ross and 14 from Matt Bryan-Amaning.

The Tar Heels held the Huskies to three field goals over the final 5 minutes, opening the door for Carolina to pull away if it had made shots.

In fact, had Strickland not missed a layup that would have made the lead six points with less than three minutes to go, this game might never have come down to a final possession. At that point, the Huskies had gone almost three minutes without a basket, an eternity in this up-and-down game.

"The last five minutes we really locked down," Henson said. "That's what you need to win games."

McDonald's hypothesis on the Tar Heels' success at the end of the game was that what they lack in experience, they make up for in togetherness.

Barnes had an even simpler theory: When it comes to playing in the NCAA Tournament, the Heels are lucky in that they don't know what they don't know.

So the pressure never had a chance to get to them in the final seconds.

"Youthful ignorance," Barnes said with a smile. "That's what it is."


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