February 21, 2006
CHAPEL HILL -- North Carolina has developed a toughness that is surprising for a team that consists of freshmen and inexperienced upperclassmen.
The Tar Heels came from behind twice in the last week to win two more ACC games and improve to 17-6 overall, 8-4 in the league, heading into a Feb. 22 game at N.C. State.
On Feb. 18, they trailed Wake Forest 44-39 at the half, but the Tar Heels dug in during the second half and won 83-72.
"They were a lot more aggressive," Wake Forest center Eric Williams said. "They were running the ball a lot more than they were in the first half. They were all over the glass. They were doing everything times 10, and it is almost like we couldn't match that."
So where does the toughness come from, in a group that is supposed to be in a rebuilding stage?
"It comes from our head guy," UNC senior David Noel said of Roy Williams. "Coach has instilled that in us from day one. We have a lot of guys on this team that are hungry. We have five freshmen who haven't played on this level, and a couple of other (older players) who really haven't gotten a chance -- and me. When you put that together, you have everybody that is hungry and wants to play basketball."
Perhaps, but it's more than that. The old Carolina mentality, that the Tar Heels always will find a way to win, has returned. It's been an uphill journey since the program fell to 8-20 under Matt Doherty in 2002, but these guys believe and they produce.
One reason is some strong individuals. Junior Wes Miller epitomizes the Tar Heels' toughness. He's listed at 5-11, but that seems a bit of a stretch. Yet no one plays harder, not even super freshman Tyler Hansbrough, who never takes a possession off.
"He's an inspiration," Wake coach Skip Prosser said of Miller. "He's a guy who wasn't highly recruited. I haven't seen anybody, while watching other teams, play harder than Hansbrough and Wes Miller."
In the second half against Wake Forest, Miller dogged senior sharpshooter Justin Gray, who scored 14 first-half points. He managed just six in the second half.
"Wes has been our defensive stopper just about all year," Noel said. "He's that person we look to guard their best player. He did a great job in the second half."
Said Gray: "He's just relentless."
TECH WIN REARRANGED EVERYTHING
As big a victory as the win against Wake Forest was, it could not top the come-from-behind classic against Georgia Tech earlier in the week. When Tech went to its locker room leading Carolina 55-42, one writer standing in the press room said: "This (UNC) team isn't good enough to come back."
The journalist obviously had forgotten the principles of Dean Smith. While Williams is not a clone of Smith -- their styles are quite different in some ways -- there are principles that hold true for what has become known as Carolina basketball through the years.
That's why the answer to that particular writer was, said in another person's best Smith imitation: "You forget we play this game on the percentages. Tech took mostly jump shots. They won't keep making those."
Smith, a math major, tracked everything and figured out what played in his favor over the long haul. One constant was a philosophy based on attacking the rim on offense, while tempting the opposition to rely on jump shots. This typically gives UNC higher-percentage shots and far more free throws than its opponents.
UNC made 24 of 30 free throws against Wake Forest. The Deacons went 6-of-10.
Tech had built its first-half lead on 9-of-10 three-point shooting. That doesn't lead to many free throws, because it's bad form to foul a jump shooter. The Tar Heels, on the other hand, had been pounding the ball inside to Hansbrough and attacking the basket, which led to 21 first-half free throws to 11 for Tech.
The odds were that the Yellow Jackets could not continue to live successfully on jumpers, particularly considering that Williams was in the locker room at the half blistering his team for not defending better. It's one thing to get a team to shoot jumpers; it's quite another to let those shooters fire away with little resistance.
"We like to say give them one bad shot and get the rebound," Williams said. "You have to get a hand in their face."
So sure enough, in the second half UNC's defense improved. Tech kept firing from outside, and Carolina attacked the rim harder than it had in the first half. The result: The Tar Heels outscored Tech 40-20 in the second half, while Tech went 0-for-7 from three-point range and shot 36.4 percent overall.
In the end, UNC had staged a classic Carolina comeback, surging from 20 points down to win 82-75.
"We did a much better job of playing every possession in the second half," Williams said. "They made their first nine threes, and it was frustrating because I felt like we were playing a little bit of defense.
"We weren't being very intelligent. It was a pretty heated discussion at halftime, but I couldn't be prouder of our kids for bouncing back and showing the toughness and being able to come back right after somebody hits you right between the eyes about 13 times like we got hit tonight."
Heated is a nice way of putting the halftime discussion.
"You know the Tasmanian Devil has his thing, where he destroys everything? That's kind of how it was," Noel said of Williams' performance at halftime. "This was as soon as we got in for the half. Usually, he goes into his locker room and then gives us a little speech. This time he came into the locker room and did the Tasmanian Devil thing right away and then went to his locker room and came back a little calmer."
Coming from 20 down to win normally would be enough for any team and its fans to remember, but there was a bonus against Tech. Hansbrough scored 40 points on 13-of-17 shooting from the field and 14-of-19 from the free throw line. He also had 10 rebounds for a double-double.
It turned out to be the most points ever scored by a Carolina player at the Smith Center, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this season. His 40 also were the most ever by an ACC freshman, which is an amazing statistic when you stop and think about the great players who have participated (when NCAA rules permitted) since 1953.
Clemson's Skip Wise held the previous mark, with 38 points in 1974.
"Tyler Hansbrough, coming into this game if he wasn't a first-team all-league player, I would have to say he made a pretty good statement here today," Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. "The kid can really run the floor. You've got to give him credit. He works very hard. I told the kids coming in that he may run the floor better than any freshman big man I've seen. I can't remember a freshman running the floor that hard."
Williams has coached a lot of excellent college players and future pros during his time at Kansas and UNC. Asked if he'd ever had a freshman give a better performance than Hansbrough did against the Yellow Jackets, Williams said: "Naw, he was pretty damn good."