Eight minutes into Friday's
tournament quarterfinal against Miami, North Carolina coach Roy Williams jerked his starters in favor of five walk-ons.
And why not? The scrubs surely couldn't do any worse.
had nine turnovers, three field goals and trailed by seven. ACC regular-season champions and winners of seven straight, they were inept and uninspired.
So as the walk-ons bravely attempted to avoid complete carnage — they yielded two points, but Stewart Cooper snared a rebound — Williams turned his back to the court and blistered the first-teamers, four of whom made all-conference.
"It wasn't for the kids," forward John Henson said of Williams' language.
"It was a little embarrassing," guard Dexter Strickland said.
Curious thing is, Ol' Roy's theatrics did zero good. The Hurricanes led by nine at intermission, by 19 midway through the second half.
Carolina was in danger of losing three consecutive ACC tournament games for the first time ever — the Tar Heels fell in the 2009 semifinals and 2010 first round.
Moreover, an event beset by attendance issues was about to lose its largest fan base — Commissioner John Swofford would have been handing out comps at Stamey's Barbecue.
Finally, North Carolina founds its form.
Ignited, as usual, by freshman point guard Kendall Marshall, the Tar Heels stormed back. Center Tyler Zeller's post move forged a tie in the final minute and his layup at the horn off a sweet Marshall feed won it, 61-59.
It was North Carolina's first lead.
"We feel as lucky as we can be," Williams.
As well they should. Miami (19-14) missed three free throws and several layups in the waning minutes. Coach Frank Haith compounded the problem by slowing the Hurricanes' high-energy pace far too early.
But talent eventually carried the Tar Heels. Marshall made two 3-pointers, his only buckets, to complement his 10 assists. Henson (10 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots) spooked Miami's shooters even when he wasn't nearby.
Twice Hurricanes wide-body Reggie Johnson caught the ball in the low post with Leslie McDonald and Harrison Barnes checking him. That's a mismatch, but Johnson, cowered by the mere thought of the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year, failed to convert either chance.
By now the Coliseum was Dean Dome West, and the ending seemed inevitable.
With 5.6 seconds remaining, Marshall took a mid-court inbounds pass and used a Henson screen to penetrate. Johnson left Zeller to challenge Marshall, whose wrap-around pass was perfect.
"His knowledge of the game is incredible," Strickland said of Marshall.
North Carolina (25-6) is 13-1 since Williams began starting Marshall, losing only at Duke, a defeat it avenged in the regular-season finale. Henson is the first Tar Heel since Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham with double-figure rebounds in 10 consecutive games, and Barnes (game-high 18 points) is the ACC's premiere rookie.
Still, how good is North Carolina? How far to ride this bunch in the office
For all their talent, depth and size, the Tar Heels late-season run has come against an ACC that pales to most seasons.
"The sorriest basketball I've ever seen," one former college coach told me after Thursday's first round.
Williams felt the same about his squad for much of Friday.
"We were as bad as we could possibly be for the first 35 minutes," he said. "It wasn't a panic situation, but it was a crisis. We went to a small lineup to try to get more shooters in there, and we went to more of our traps and double-teams on the defensive end. We haven't done that very often this year, but sometimes when you're in a crisis, it can require, I guess, drastic measures."
The Tar Heels also were in crisis after a 20-point flogging at Georgia Tech in January. That's when Williams turned to Marshall and turned the season.
Might Friday's scare have a similar effect?
"It definitely was a wake-up call," Strickland said. "For everybody."