Deep in the heart of Dixie, North Carolina point guard Larry Drew himself showed the heart many have questioned all season. In a tie game with fewer than 10 seconds to play, Drew drove the length of the court, split three defenders and made a contested layup to give the Tar Heels a 76-74 victory against Mississippi State in the second round of the NIT.
Carolina justifiably has been lambasted for its poor performances on the road this season, but the Heels clawed back from two substantial deficits and took the lead late thanks to the timely shooting of Will Graves and some key defensive plays by John Henson.
The Heels are the No. 4 seed in their bracket and MSU was No. 1 —and would have beaten Kentucky and made the NCAA Tournament if not for a last-second collapse last weekend — so this constituted a major triumph for this iteration of the Tar Heels.
Henson is beginning to show signs of becoming a star. He scored 12 points and added eight rebounds, three blocks and two steals, and his two-handed block late of a baseline drive was one of the most impressive and important plays of the year.
Graves was able to knock in 4-for-6 from behind the three-point stripe, including a lucky bankshot late in the game. Several other Heels offered solid performances as well, and Carolina’s team defense showed marked improvement.
Carolina shot 49 percent from the field, a very surprising number against a quality opponent on the road. By contrast, the three-point crazed Bulldogs hit just 41 percent, and UNC out-rebounded them 41-32.
Beyond the nuts of bolts of today's game, the NIT experience has proved to be a rewarding one for the Heels. The young players are gaining tournament experience and now have a better understanding of what it takes to win on the road. Even the plays that go wrong — such as Dexter Strickland's missed free throw late or the dumb foul committed by Henson — serve as a vital investment into not making those same plays in the future.
From a more sentimental perspective, seniors Deon Thompson and Marcus Ginyard also are making a final run and putting at least a little of this season's turmoil behind them. Meanwhile, the embattled Drew gets a feather to stick in his cap and perhaps, for a moment, a break from answering the persistent speculation that he will transfer at the conclusion of the season.
All eyes now move to the upcoming game between N.C. State and Alabama-Birmingham. If the Wolfpack prevail on the road, they will travel to Carolina for an old-school showdown at Carmichael on Tuesday night. If UAB wins, the Heels will face them on the road.
To see the UNC/MSU box score, click here.