Three years ago, a top-seeded North Carolina team met a No. 16 in the NCAA tournament at Greensboro Coliseum. The Tar Heels had lost in the ACC tournament and were without a first-team all-conference player.
In an almost identical challenge Friday, North Carolina wasn’t nearly as impressive as in 2009. Superior at every position, the Tar Heels didn’t dash Vermont’s hopes at history until midway through the second half.
The 77-58 final was a far cry from three years ago in this building, when North Carolina, without ACC player of the year Ty Lawson (toe), dump-trucked Radford 101-58, starting its run to Roy Williams’ second national championship.
North Carolina’s John Henson, the ACC’s top rebounder and shot-blocker, missed Friday’s game with a left wrist injury, and his replacement, freshman James Michael McAdoo of Norfolk, responded with a season-high 17 points.
But the Tar Heels, seeded No. 1 in the Midwest Regional, shot a pedestrian 41.5 percent and were outrebounded by the Catamounts, looking to become the first No. 16 to ever win in the tournament.
North Carolina (30-5) wasn’t pulling a Syracuse – the Orange led 16th-seeded UNC Asheville in the waning seconds Thursday night before winning by seven. And clearly, the Tar Heels’ withering pace and physical superiority were wearing on Vermont (24-12).
Yet there was an occasional carelessness to Carolina’s play that left coach Roy Williams foot-stomping mad.
At the television timeout with 15:55 remaining, Williams was as exorcised as a coach with a 12-point lead in the NCAA tournament could be.
Four minutes later, when Harrison Barnes’ cross-court pass glanced off McAdoo’s hands and toward the seated Williams on the bench, the coach caught the ball and promptly slammed the ball twice on the court before addressing his team in the subsequent TV break.
Williams later dismissed his irritation.
“That's just the perfectionist or the stupidity,” he said. “I don't know which one you want to use, you use either one and it will be all right with me. But I do get frustrated when we make mistakes.”
Williams was visibly enthused by McAdoo’s macho rebound and follow of a Reggie Bullock shot. McAdoo’s 3-point play gave Carolina a 54-37 lead, and when P.J. Hairston followed with a three from the left corner, the margin was 20 and all baby blue faithful could look ahead to Sunday’s round-of-32 encounter with Missouri Valley Conference champion Creighton.
That game will match Barnes against his former teammate at Ames (Iowa) High, first-team All-America forward Doug McDermott, son of Creighton coach Greg McDermott.
McAdoo’s first-half, one-handed dunk was the game’s enduring image and came after he’d missed his first several shots.
“It felt good. So, yes, it relaxed me,” McAdoo said on the interview podium.
“It looked good, too,” said teammate Tyler Zeller (17 points, 15 rebounds).
“I didn't watch it on the replay,” Williams said, “but I'm looking forward to watching it on tape.”
McAdoo was 5-for-8 from the floor during a 13-point second half, a solid rebound from his 2-for-10 game in the ACC championship game loss to Florida State on Sunday.
“I don't know how much of it was just getting my feet under me,” McAdoo said of his skittish start Friday. “I felt I was taking good shots; they just weren't going in. And seeing that I really just tried to get to the offensive boards, I feel like I was able to get to the free throw line, and I was able to get that dunk. And then just coming back in the second half, I just tried to be aggressive and things seemed to just fall in my lap.”
Point guard Kendall Marshall again posted exceptional numbers with 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting, 10 assists and three turnovers. Barnes added 14 points as six Tar Heels scored at least seven points.
Much as Lawson returned for a 2009 second-round game here against LSU, Henson may be back Sunday against Creighton. The overriding question: Will the parallels continue with North Carolina reaching the Final Four and hanging a championship banner?
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