Miami tops UNC 87-77 to win first ACC tournament

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 17, 2013 

— On the night before North Carolina’s 87-77 loss against Miami on Sunday in the ACC tournament championship game, the Tar Heels gathered inside their hotel room and watched a replay of the game that changed their season.

On a screen in front of them it was Feb. 9 in Coral Gables, Fla., and the Hurricanes were embarrassing the Heels all over again. A dunk there. A fast-break layup here. A wide-open 3-pointer. An alley-oop off the backboard. The Heels watched and tried to feel what they felt then – the anger and humiliation.

“They were having fun against us,” P.J. Hairston, UNC’s sophomore guard, said of that game last month at Miami. “So we wanted to come out (on Sunday) and play with the intensity that we haven’t played with against Miami, that Miami hadn’t seen, and kind of surprise them.”

Maybe the Tar Heels (24-10) did surprise the Hurricanes (27-6) here on Sunday. Maybe not. Either way, for 35 minutes Hairston and his teammates were the Hurricanes’ equal – every bit as impressive as the team that earlier this season handed Duke and UNC some of their worst defeats in memory.

It was the final five minutes, though, that doomed UNC at the Greensboro Coliseum. After 10 ties and 15 lead changes, Miami went ahead for good with six and a half minutes to play after Trey McKinney Jones made a 3-pointer.

At the time, it seemed another momentum swing in a game full of them. This was a game, after all, in which the lead changed hands on eight consecutive made shots in the first half, and a game in which both teams answered the other again and again, usually with 3-pointers. Miami and UNC combined for a tournament-record 25 of them.

But then, UNC simply ran out of answers, and Miami gradually extended the lead in the final minutes – to five points, and then to eight and then to 10. And then it was over – an anticlimactic finish, perhaps, to a game that for a while seemed destined for a memorable finish.

For UNC, it was a disappointing end in a season that has included more disappointing finishes than Williams cares for. But there were no harsh words from Williams, who at times has been his team’s most relentless critic.

“I’ve got no problem with my team,” Williams said, his voice soft with emotion. “I got nothing to complain about with my team today. I’m really proud of my team.”

UNC gave one of its most listless performances of the season during that loss at Miami. On Sunday, though, the Tar Heels gave one of their most spirited.

Hairston, playing through the left hand injury he suffered on Friday in the tournament quarterfinals, led UNC with 28 points, and his six 3-pointers tied UNC’s ACC tournament record. At one point in the first half, Hairston made 3s on three consecutive possessions. Asked if it was the most “on” he’d ever felt, Hairston gave a simple answer.

“Yeah,” he said.

But he didn’t make any 3s during the final 15 minutes, after Miami utilized a smaller lineup to better guard the Tar Heels on the perimeter.

“They kind of face-guarded me for the rest of the game, and it did kind of slow me down, because they were getting through every screen,” Hairston said. “They were switching screens if their player got cracked.”

UNC’s late inability to create the kind of perimeter shot shots it had early on was one reason for the Heels’ demise. Another was their failure to defend Shane Larkin, the sophomore guard who led Miami with 28 points.

Larkin made a 3-pointer to cut UNC’s lead to one point with about seven minutes left, and he scored eight points in the final two minutes and 21 seconds.

“You don’t realize how quick he is,” said Marcus Paige, the UNC freshman point guard who finished with 17 points and five assists. “Well, some of you think you realize how quick he is, but until you’re out there defending him it’s just a different level of quickness.”

Paige’s performance is one of the reasons why the Tar Heels, who made 13 of their 28 3-point attempts, still had a chance in the final minutes on Sunday. And his runner in the lane cut Miami’s lead to three with three minutes and 37 seconds to play.

UNC came no closer, though, and walked off the court while confetti fell and music played and while Miami celebrated its first ACC championship. Before Sunday, the Hurricanes, who denied the Tar Heels their 18th tournament championship, had never reached the ACC tournament title game.

They accepted the trophy long after the great majority of the crowd, mostly adorned in light blue, had left the coliseum. Miami had already cut down one set of nets, after it clinched the ACC regular season championship.

“After we clinched the outright regular season title at home, we talked about that like, ‘Wasn’t that the funnest thing you’ve ever done?’ said Miami’s Julian Gamble, a Durham native who finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds on Sunday. “We wanted to go to Greensboro and do that again, and bring those same scissors, and we’re a little more experienced at cutting the nets down.”

The Tar Heels left without what they came here for, but they did leave with a sense of redemption. They played with the pain of that 26-point loss at Miami still on their minds, and played on Sunday far than they might have weeks ago, or a month ago.

Williams afterward spoke of how “95 percent” of UNC fans “abandoned ship” during the season’s more difficult moments. He left the Greensboro Coliseum somber, but proud.

“I feel very lucky to be the coach of my team,” he said.

See the box score from the game

Observations

--As expected, North Carolina experienced its share of difficulties on the interior during the ACC tournament championship game against Miami. The Hurricanes outscored UNC 30-20 in the paint, and 13-7 in points off of offensive rebounds. But Miami didn’t take control of the game until it utilized a smaller lineup to better defend the Tar Heels on the perimeter. That change happened during the final 15 minutes of the game, and the Hurricanes then did a better job of fighting through screens, or switching off of them, and limiting the Tar Heels from the outside.

--Miami’s struggles from the free throw line didn’t bode well early on, when it seemed like a back-and-forth game might come down to the final few possessions. But the game wasn’t decided in the final seconds, in part because of the Hurricanes’ improvement at the line. They started 5-for-10 from the line, but made their final 10 free throw attempts. Eight of those 10 free throws came during the final 55 seconds.

--The Tar Heels at times during the second half on Sunday utilized a zone defense, and with mixed results. The Heels came up with a defensive stop while using the zone, but also allowed a long Shane Larkin 3-pointer that gave Miami momentum. UNC coach Roy Williams rarely uses a zone defense, and the Heels played their usual man during the final minutes.

--The majority of the crowd at the Greensboro Coliseum wore light blue on Sunday, and the many Tar Heels fans in attendance were loud, helping to create a home game atmosphere for UNC. That wasn’t surprising. What might have been: There was a good showing of Miami fans, too. “We had a lot of fans in here, too,” said Shane Larkin, Miami’s sophomore guard. “We could hear our fans as loud as their fans.” Most of the coliseum had emptied by the time the game ended, but a small but vocal contingent of Miami fans gathered near the Hurricanes bench to celebrate.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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