UNC blows out Vermont 77-58, faces Creighton next

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 16, 2012 

— In the moments after North Carolina’s 77-58 victory against Vermont here on Friday, the Tar Heels gathered around a television in their locker room and watched the final moments of the most stunning upset this NCAA tournament has provided.

More than 1,000 miles away, in Omaha, Neb., Norfolk State, a No. 15 seed, held on for an 86-84 victory against No. 2 Missouri. The moment joined a long list of others that have helped make this tournament what it is, and the shock waves made their way into the UNC locker room, too.

The Tar Heels, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region, didn’t need a reminder that strange things can happen in March. Not after spending much of the first half struggling against the 16th-seeded Catamounts, which won the America East conference tournament and then beat Lamar on Wednesday night for the right to come here.

The day before, on Thursday, Vermont senior Luke Apfeld stood in his team’s locker room inside the Greensboro Coliseum and promised the Catamounts would provide UNC with some competition – that Vermont wouldn’t make it easy.

And it didn’t. UNC (30-5) led 37-25 at halftime, but not before spending much of the first half trying to figure out Vermont’s sagging zone defense.

The Catamounts (24-12) provided UNC with plenty of open looks on the perimeter but the Heels, who shot 41.5 percent for the game, didn’t often convert. The Catamounts made 39.7 percent of their shots – and just 3-of-18 from behind the 3-point line – but they managed to hang around for a while nonetheless.

“We just missed a lot of easy looks,” UNC sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall said. “You couldn’t ask for better shots than what we were getting. We were getting wide-open threes – little chip-ins, we were missing those.”

Marshall began penetrating the zone more often towards the end of the first half, and that helped UNC end the half on an 18-8 run over the final 5 minutes and 30 seconds before halftime.

Still, Vermont didn’t go away. The Tar Heels held a 10-point lead with about 14 minutes to play, and a Greensboro Coliseum crowd dominated by UNC fans appeared restless.

Before Friday, the Tar Heels spent a lot of time talking about the need to start games more sharply – about the importance of avoiding the kinds of lulls and lapses that have at times hindered UNC throughout the past few months.

Still, the Heels appeared to need a while to settle into the game on Friday. Sophomore forward Harrison Barnes, who finished with 14 points, said he and his teammates needed time to relax from their “jitters.” The jitters weren’t nerves, Barnes said, but the kind of extraneous energy that comes with the start of tournament play.

While he spoke with reporters, Barnes learned that Missouri was about to lose.

“Wow,” he said.

Given that news, Barnes was happy UNC won ugly – and won, period.

“I’m glad it wasn’t just roll out the carpet, OK, this team’s just going to lay down,” Barnes said. “I mean, they fought extremely hard. They ran a good offense. They made us work on defense for 35 seconds every single time.”

James Michael McAdoo, a freshman who started his third consecutive game in place of the injured John Henson, finished with 17 points for the Heels. So, too, did Tyler Zeller. Both players exploited their size advantage on the interior, especially while UNC pulled away during the second half.

“We’re one of 32 teams still playing,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said afterward, “and we’re extremely happy about that. It was a tough game.”

After UNC’s postgame press conference ended, McAdoo rushed off the podium in pursuit of the nearest TV. He wanted to catch the end of the Missouri game, and a history-making moment.

The Tar Heels, meanwhile, didn’t make any history of their own on Friday. And perhaps that was the best part.

“Our goal is to win six games in a row,” Marshall said. “But you can’t win six without one.”

Carter: 919-829-8944

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