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March 11, 2011Coming off one of the more memorable second half comebacks in North Carolina basketball history Friday afternoon, the Tar Heels (25-6 overall) will return to the court of the Greensboro Coliseum Saturday afternoon for a noon tipoff against Clemson in the ACC Tournament semifinals.
Following Friday's thrilling finish against Miami---as the Tar Heels outscored the Hurricanes 27-6 over the final ten minutes of regulation to move on with a 61-59 triumph---UNC's semifinal clash with the Tigers might seem a little anticlimactic
But don't tell that to North Carolina's players and coaches, who are thrilled that they have an opportunity to make amends for their sluggish performance immediately instead of having to stew over a shocking loss heading into next week's NCAA Tournament.
"We were as lucky as we could possibly be," said Roy Williams, who advanced to the ACC semifinals for the sixth time in eight seasons at North Carolina's head coach.
Lucky is one way to put it.
But good---good for the last six to seven minutes at least---is another way to put it.
More than anything the Tar Heels were good when they had to be, for when Miami jumped ahead 53-34 just after the midway point of the second half, it seemed as a light switched on with this UNC team and they finally decided to start playing ball.
After 30-plus minutes of poor passing, butterfingers and shaky defense, it all came together for the Tar Heels in an incredible stretch of action that won't soon be forgotten by those who were in the confines of the Greensboro Coliseum.
Leslie McDonald, Kendall Marshall, and Harrison Barnes buried five three-pointers between them during UNC's decisive late-game rally, helping evaporate Miami's advantage in practically no time.
"They (UNC) made plays down the stretch," said Miami head coach Frank Haith. "It just seemed like they made some big shots. They just made plays."
But it was All-ACC junior big man Tyler Zeller that scored Carolina's final eight points---including of course the game-winner off a fantastic pass from Marshall that just did beat the buzzer.
Zeller's flurry of eight points in the final minutes gave him 13 points for the game---helping offset what was otherwise a subpar performance for the UNC veteran.
"I had to shoot it as fast as possible," said Zeller about the game-winning basket. "I knew as soon as I let it go that I had gotten it off in time just because I knew the buzzer had gone off after it left my hand."
"I saw the way they (Miami) were playing me. I think it was (Julian) Gamble who didn't hedge out as hard as I wanted him to so I just kept going to the basket. Z's man came over and helped and I found him underneath the basket," said Marshall about his clutch pass.
And now it's on to Saturday, where the Tar Heels will face a Clemson team that all but punched its ticket to the Big Dance Friday afternoon with an impressive 70-47 triumph over Boston College.
The fourth-seeded Tigers (21-10 overall) shot a solid eight-of-17 (47.1 percent) from three-point range and dominated the boards, holding a 39-26 advantage and keeping Boston College to just six offensive rebounds for the entire game.
Clemson got 20 points from All-ACC standout Demontez Stitt in the BC win, while big man Jerai Grant added 12 points.
The Tar Heels, of course, swept Clemson with two victories in the regular season---both hard-fought, gut-wrenching performances.
UNC needed every bit of energy, spirit, and emotion to prevail in each of the games against Brad Brownell's tough squad.
But this is the postseason now.
Anything that happened in the regular season simply doesn't matter anymore.
One could argue that North Carolina has gotten its wake-up call, and they'll surely come out fired up and ready to play on Saturday after Friday's big-time scare from Miami.
There's also the idea that Clemson did what it had to do on Friday to secure its spot in the NCAA Tournament, and now after that highly-impressive performance, there's nowhere to go but down.
But after the way they came out and played for most of the Miami game, UNC's players can't afford to carry any attitude of complacency or cockiness heading in.
For Clemson, it's not just about assuring its spot in the NCAA's.
It's about seeding. It's about trying to get a more favorable draw, perhaps a little bit closer to home.
And more than anything, it's about going out and trying to beat Carolina---hated Carolina.
Excited about its excellent performance against Boston College, Clemson is eager to return to Sunday's ACC Championship game for the second time in the last four seasons.
If Carolina expects to see Sunday, they better come out with a lot more intensity and effort than they did for most of Friday.
With the way the Tigers play defense, a 20-point second half comeback against them sounds far-fetched at best, and impossible at worst.
For North Carolina, it's going to be vital to get off to a good start, play into the pro-UNC crowd that will surely be assembled in the Coliseum, and come out with a sense of urgency.
It was the lack of that sense of urgency that nearly sank them against the 'Canes.
But if they come out with that urgency and take care of the other deficiencies from Friday's game, then a Sunday matchup---potentially with Duke---could very well be on the horizon.