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January 28, 2011

Carolina fighting through inexperience

Not even seven full minutes into North Carolina's 74-71 win at Miami Wednesday evening and coach Roy Williams couldn't stand to watch anymore.

Miami's Durand Scott stole the inbounds pass and dished it to Reggie Johnson for two more Hurricane points.

Williams hollered and stomped his right foot on the hardwood in disgust.

North Carolina timeout, 18-4 Hurricanes.

Oh, it's all much ado about nothing now, of course, since the Tar Heels climbed out of that early deficit and went on to win the game, their fourth in conference play and 14th overall.

But it's a dangerous tactic that Carolina is employing far too often this season.

On one hand, falling behind against Virginia, Clemson and Miami and then fighting back for victories has given Carolina the opportunity to prove its toughness and poise.

And on the other hand is the debacle at Georgia Tech.

Williams isn't in the business of making excuses, but he also knows that some facts are unavoidable, regardless if the alumni or the national critics want to hear them.

He points out that the Tar Heels have lost 12 players in the last two years.

Inexperience currently pays rent at the Dean Dome.

"When you're good and experienced, then you don't have those (early lapses)," Williams said. "But right now we are not experienced for sure, and we're not at the level that I want to say we are really good."

It's a tough act to juggle for Williams.

He says he wants to see growth from his young team, and opportunity for that lurks in the wake of adversity.

But the coach also wants his team to experience some success, he says, and not have to always fight from behind.

"It gives you confidence that you can come back, but you don't want to rely on it," Williams said.

If the Tar Heels continue to rely on their ability to overcome slow starts, they won't have the opportunity to overcome any lead in late March.

If this trend continues, they simply won't be playing deep into March.

But what's odd about it all is that Carolina's biggest nemesis, its inexperience, has been the foundation of one of its greatest strengths.

"Yeah, it's something that we need to avoid," Tyler Zeller said, "but we also have the confidence that we are good enough to make those last-second plays."

Inexperience gets Carolina in these holes, but then those holes allow its confidence to come through.

The knock on the Tar Heels last year was that they exuded as much confidence as a withered fruit tree in winter.

There was little life and even less swagger.

This team, however, has life, it has a confidence about it. As ugly as it may look at times and as sloppy as it may get, there's at least a strong pulse behind it all.

Williams says the Tar Heels simply need to play better over a full 40 minutes instead of waiting for desperation time and hoping that Harrison Barnes can keep his recent trend of hitting big shots in the final minutes alive.

Saturday provides another chance for Carolina to tighten its ship, as the beaten and bruised North Carolina State Wolfpack comes to Chapel Hill.

North Carolina State (12-8, 2-4 ACC) is coming off an ugly 10-point loss to Clemson after jumping out to a 19-point lead in the first half.

Ignore the loss to Clemson, ignore the conference record, ignore everything. This is Carolina against State, and it's going to be a challenge.

"It's a big rivalry, if not the same as the Duke-Carolina rivalry," Barnes said. "It's definitely a game we need to go out and win."

Barnes has quietly put together a productive season, averaging nearly 12 points a game to go along with 5.2 rebounds.

Is it an All-America season? No, but Barnes isn't worried about that.

"The talk is going to happen regardless," he says.

Barnes has become the go-to guy for Carolina late in games, taking the big shots with the clock winding down.

If he can prosper in that role, then his overall numbers are meaningless.

"He's so focused, he's not bother by taking that shot," Williams said. "He's gone through the repetitions, he's imagined those things happening so many times now that it's reality and it's not different for him."

And why, exactly, does that not translate earlier in the game?

"We tease him about that," Zeller says with a laugh. "We tell him it would be nice if he could play like that for the other 36 minutes, too."

Williams would undoubtedly like that, also, but he doesn't see it that way. He sees it as a team effort instead, and he knows that it will take a single-minded approach if Carolina is going to improve as a team and, perhaps, play like a veteran club.

But as of Friday evening, all he's worried about is the Wolfpack, and the plan for Saturday afternoon is simple.

"We just need to make sure our 'want to' is as big as their 'want to,'" Williams said.

That "want to" could look awfully strong if Barnes treats the first four minutes like the last four minutes against.

"One of these games, he's just going to go off for 30," Zeller said. "We know he's capable of it, he just needs to put it all together."

As they say, there's no time like the present.







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