Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/24/2007 01:37:00 AM
Closer Look: North Carolina-USC
Marcus Ginyard ignited the Tar Heels' 18-0 run with three baskets from offensive rebounds.
Michael Heiman/Getty Images
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- On their locker-room whiteboard during the NCAA tournament, North Carolina coaches have been in the habit of drawing a large box in blue marker, and then writing a number inside. You could even call it a superstition. When reporters were allowed inside after the top-seeded Tar Heels' 74-64 comeback win over fifth-seeded USC early Saturday morning, the box contained a giant and ominous "8".
Eight, as in, eight teams left in the dance, and we're one of them, courtesy of a furious 18-0 run that buried the Trojans midway through the second half. "If we win, we chop the number down," explained point guard Tywon Lawson, who had a cold shooting night (2-of-10, four points) but outraced fatigued USC late in the game. There was, however, one complication with the box at the outset of the evening: UNC forgot to draw it before tipoff. And at halftime, said Lawson, "some guys were blaming our bad start on us not ever putting up the 16."
That's right: The Heels are superstitious enough to actually blame their nine-point halftime deficit -- to a USC team that was not only matching but surpassing Carolina's athleticism -- on the absence of digits on a markerboard. That should serve as an example of just how fragile life can be for a No. 1 seed in the tournament, even if all four have advanced to the Elite Eight. Ohio State went down to the wire with Tennessee. Kansas survived a dogfight with Southern Illinois. Florida trailed Butler in the second half before winning. And Carolina, without the all-important "16" in its head, played a passionless first 25 minutes against USC and had Roy Williams worrying that his golf season might begin early this year.
"We feel very fortunate," Williams said of the comeback. "Please understand it was not any great coaching strategy; we just got kids that did give us the effort in the second half. We had a lot saved up because we didn't use very much of it in the first half."
As the Trojans' Taj Gibson dominated inside (12 points, nine boards in the first half) and guards Nick Young (11 in the first half) and Gabe Pruitt (nine) lit up the scoreboard with an array of slashing moves early on, UNC looked almost helpless. It wasn't pushing the pace, and its unmasked star, Tyler Hansbrough, was invisible. He had only two points in the first half and five in the game.
"We knew, coming in, that we were going to be able to get what we wanted," said Pruitt. "We took advantage of penetration and got the ball Taj in the lane, but they just played bigger down the stretch, especially on the glass."
The leader of the Tar Heels' put-back parade was unheralded sophomore guard Marcus Ginyard, who ignited their epic run -- which lasted from 11:03 to 4:28 in the second half -- with not one, not two, but three follow-up buckets. The third, with 7:38 left, cut the USC lead to one at 59-58 and all but deflated the Trojans' hopes of holding back the flood. Ginyard, the player who had publicly questioned Carolina's toughness during its pre-ACC tournament malaise, came from the left baseline for a one-handed tip-in of a Wayne Ellington miss, and then let out a scream that was audible over the roar of the crowd. After three more minutes of the Heels' high-paced onslaught, USC was completely submerged.
"Those extra-effort plays are the ones that get everybody's emotions high," Ginyard said. "That gave this team the energy and the spark to play better defensively and get going on offense."
Ginyard and the Heels found the spark just in time to set up a 1-vs.-2 duel with Georgetown on Sunday. Before that showdown begins, one assumes, the whiteboard number will be prominently posted.
Player Who Impressed: Brandan Wright, UNC. Wright was underwhelming against Michigan State, getting pushed around by the tougher Spartans and held to just three points while playing limited minutes. He looked soft again in the first half against USC, as the more active Taj Gibson (who finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds) worked him inside. Just when we were starting to write UNC's obituary, though -- with Wright's ineffectiveness as part of the cause of death -- he came up huge in the second half. Once Gibson got into foul trouble, the 6-foot-9 Wright used his length to elevate over the Trojans, and scored 13 second-half points to finish with 21. Roy Williams likes to use Tiger Woods references when talking about Wright, and on Friday he said this:
"Yesterday again, Tiger shot 71, last week he shot 76 in the final round; but he's still Tiger," Williams said. "Today he shot 66. So Brandan shot 76 the other night but he shot 66 today. He doesn't know what the heck I'm talking about, so I can say anything I want about golf."
Courtside Confidential: UNC's media relations staff distributed a sobering press release late in Friday's game. It stated that the team's mascot for the past three years, senior Jason Ray, had been hit by a car outside a hotel in Fort Lee, N.J., that afternoon. He was listed in critical condition at the Hackensack Medical Center. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams was informed of the situation just seconds before his opening press-conference remarks. "It sort of makes everything else pale in comparison," Williams said. "It's nerve-wracking right now to think about that." ... There was one celebrity sighting other than ol' Pat Ewing in East Rutherford: Giants quarterback Eli Manning. ... USC's players were mostly sporting closely shaved heads for Friday's game -- a big change from the wild cuts they wore to Thursday's practice. Said Nick Young, who had mini-frohawk with intricate designs shaved into the sides during that workout, "Coach had a talk with us and he thought it would be better if we go out there looking the same -- so everybody on the team's got bald heads."
The Big Picture: Both Carolina and Georgetown overcame miserable starts to reach the East Region final. But while the Hoyas seemed more upbeat about overtaking Vandy -- perhaps it was the last-second nature in which they won -- some Tar Heels were still expressing concern over their early sluggishness. "We can't keep doing this," said Ginyard. "It's tough to say that, but it's even tougher to do that. We've really got to start playing 40-minute games, and from this point on we have to get tougher."
Much of the pressure to step up will fall on Hansbrough, who had one of his worst performances of the season on Friday but said, "I always play better after I've played poorly." Whether or not he wins the star battle with Georgetown's versatile Jeff Green will go a long way in deciding the game. While Kansas-UCLA is considered by many to be the tournament's marquee regional final, is there really anything bigger than UNC-Georgetown? It'll be a classic contrast of styles, pitting the Hoyas' methodically efficient halfcourt scheme against the Heels' relentless up-tempo attack. "We don't feel like anyone can run with us for 40 minutes," said Hansbrough. The Hoyas aren't interested in running, though. They just want to pick UNC apart.