NEWARK, N.J. — Trailing by three points with five minutes to go this past Sunday, North Carolina shooting guard Dexter Strickland said he felt no jitters, even with a trip to the NCAA East Regional semifinals on the line.
"We felt like we had been in that situation before, and we knew what we had to do to win," the sophomore said after his team made key defensive plays, and he made two free throws, down the stretch to beat Washington 86-83. "I think we just believed in one another and got the job done."
They had plenty of reason to believe then - and now. Entering tonight's NCAA regional semifinal match-up against No. 11 seed Marquette (22-14) at the Prudential Center, the second-seeded Tar Heels (28-7) are 11-2 this season in games decided by five or fewer points - and 8-0 in that category since they lost to Texas in the waning moments on Dec. 18.
On paper, they have plenty of advantages against the Golden Eagles: a bigger frontcourt in 7-feet Tyler Zeller and 6-10 John Henson; a quicker transition game pushed by the passes of point guard Kendall Marshall; and a coach in Roy Williams who boasts 57 all-time NCAA tournament victories.
But should it come down to a clutch play late, UNC may have another small edge over Marquette. The Golden Eagles advanced last weekend thanks to a go-ahead 3-pointer over Syracuse in the final minute from Raleigh's Darius Johnson-Odom, but they are 4-7 in games decided by five or fewer points this season.
"Whatever 'it' is, they've got it," Williams said of his Tar Heels. "They can raise their level of concentration. They can focus, and not be discouraged by one bad play. We've talked all year long about next play, next play ... the more you practice it, it gives them confidence. The more confidence you have, the more success they have. The more success they have, the more confidence they have. So it's a little bit of that chicken-and-egg thing."
It was unclear whether UNC owned a chicken or an egg after their 78-76 loss to Texas. After Cory Joseph made a turnaround jumper with 1.4 seconds to put the Longhorns ahead, the Tar Heels couldn't find star Harrison Barnes and had to settle for a rushed 3-point miss from Marshall. Immediately, the team knew it had missed an opportunity.
"We always looked back on that game, when we were still trying to climb in the rankings, 'What if we would have won that Texas game? We would be so much farther ahead.'" Marshall said. "But ultimately ... we did learn from it ... and finding a way to get stops and make shots down the stretch has been huge for us."
Williams said the Tar Heels constantly practiced poise - "three minutes to play, up 6; three minutes to play, down 6 ... so it's nothing unusual for them." And it helped that they had a couple freshmen in the starting lineup who were used to pressure: Barnes led his Ames (Iowa) High school team to back-to-back undefeated seasons, while Marshall was projected the best player in the nation - as a sixth-grader.
As a result, Williams called the duo more "worldly" than some of the players their age.
And that worldly toughness started to show five games after the Texas loss, when Barnes scored eight points in the final 31/2 minutes to help seal UNC's 16-point come-from behind victory over Virginia Tech. Two weeks later, Barnes buried a 15-footer to tie the score at Miami, then a 3-pointer with 6.6 seconds left to win it 74-71.
In all, Barnes has made two game-winners and four more go-ahead shots in the final five minutes of victories since the start of ACC play. And his late-game confidence caught on.
Zeller also now has a couple of last-second shots under his belt - the winning layup against Miami in the ACC tournament, as well as another bucket against Clemson the next day to send the game to overtime. (Both were on assists from Marshall.)
Key late plays haven't been limited to offense, either; Henson's inbounds deflection with 7 seconds left against the Huskies this past Sunday sent Strickland to the free-throw line for the victory-sealing points - and sent Washington home.
"People ask me all the time, 'Were you nervous? It was such a tight game,'" Marshall said. "But we feel like it's just another game. ... We're confident."
Then, and now.
The Tar Heels caution that they would prefer not to have tonight's game come down to the final seconds, especially against a squad that has had some success late, too. But if it does, they won't panic.
"Heart and execution - those are the two things that go into it," Barnes said. "You have to continue to believe in yourself, trust your team and trust your own abilities. ... We do."
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