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Rising to the Challenge
Andrew Lawrence
April 13, 2005
For Roy Williams and the Tar Heels, winning means never having to say you're sorry
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April 13, 2005

Rising To The Challenge

For Roy Williams and the Tar Heels, winning means never having to say you're sorry

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Marshall 40 5-17 6-10 5 0 3 16
McCloskey 18 3-3 1-2 3 0 3 7
Scott 40 8-16 5-6 6 4 2 21
Dukes 15 0-0 0-0 3 0 1 0
Ishmeal 36 2-6 0-0 0 7 2 6
Coleman 2 0-0 0-0 0 0 0 0
Cassise 30 5-10 0-0 1 0 1 14
Carson 14 2-5 0-0 0 1 3 4
Ritzema 5 0-1 0-0 1 0 1 0
Totals 200 25-58 12-18 22 12 16 68

The practices had been brutal, the coach unapologetic. North Carolina's Roy Williams wasn't pleased with his team's middling effort in the ACC tournament, and the Tar Heels, who had finished atop the league's standings for the first time in 12 years, had been disappointing in their semifinal loss to Georgia Tech. To safeguard against an even bigger disappointment, Williams turned teacher first, then taskmaster. He spent one day with the players, going over tape of their 78-75 loss, then the next two whipping the Tar Heels into shape by having them whip up on each other in practices at the Smith Center.

When junior center Sean May arrived in Charlotte for the start of practices for the Syracuse region games, he was sporting a bruise over his left eye. When reporters asked Williams how his player had been injured (courtesy of an elbow to the face from reserve Byron Sanders), the coach was, again, unapologetic. "The difference between winning and losing is like this," said Williams, holding his thumb and index finger in a pinch. "The mental edge, I think, is by far more important than how you are physically, as long as you're able to play and don't have seven guys on crutches."

On the other hand, practices for Oakland, UNC's first-round opponent, had been fertile ground for fisticuffs all season. Coach Greg Kampe, in his 21st year at the Detroit-area commuter school, would call this group of Golden Grizzlies his cagiest yet. Disharmony among the players had made for a depressing 0-7 start to the season, even though a late-season five-game winning streak, which included a Mid-Continent Conference tournament championship, was enough to earn Oakland its first NCAA tournament berth since moving to Division I seven years ago. Still, even with a 79-69 victory over Alabama A&M in the play-in game, Oakland would have to win the national title just to finish the season above .500. (It was the only team among this year's field of 65 to enter the tournament with a losing record.) The odds of an Oakland upset against Carolina? "Like 3,000 to 1," said Grizzlies swingman Rawle Marshall, who admitted growing up a UNC fan. "But why not? Why can't we be the first 16 seed to pull the upset?"

Why? Because North Carolina was too potent. The Tar Heels scored 40 points before the game was 12 minutes old, shot 73% in the first half, had four players in double figures and set a school record with 12 threes in the game. North Carolina opened up a 37-point lead in the second half and, behind May's 19 points and Marvin Williams's 20, cruised to a 96-68 victory that kept Roy Williams undefeated in the NCAA's first round. "We knew we had to come out and redeem ourselves for the way we played [in the ACC tournament]," May said. Kampe, meanwhile, satisfied with his team's one postseason win, was willing to chalk up the defeat to bad timing. "You saw that movie Airplane!?" he said. "Well, we just picked a baaad day to play Carolina."

Surely Iowa State could muster a stronger fight in the second round. Like Oakland, the Cyclones had a shaky start this season, losing their first five Big 12 games before peeling off wins in 10 of their last 13 to take the ninth seed in the Syracuse bracket. One look at Iowa State's defense easily explains the team's string of successes: The Cyclones led the Big 12 in turnover margin (+6.06) and steals (10.81 spg).

Iowa State's 2-3 attacking defense had given Minnesota fits in the opening round, and sophomore guard Curtis Stinson scored a team-high 18 points to go with four assists. But as he prepared to face the Tar Heels, Stinson, the Cyclones' best defender, had to psych himself up for the task of matching up against UNC's Rashad McCants. On the eve of the game Stinson found himself mulling over different approaches. "Maybe try to keep the ball out of his hands?" he mused. "Just slow him down a little bit? I don't know. Hopefully everything will work out all right."

Williams, too, had much to ponder. More than a year outside the Big 12 had left him unfamiliar with Iowa State's personnel. "They had a tremendous change in players since I was there," said Williams, who coached at Kansas for 15 years before returning to his alma mater. "I don't know as much as I would like--to say the least."

Neither team had much feel for the other early in the first half of their subregional final, exchanging baskets for the first 11 minutes before North Carolina opened a nine-point lead with 7:57 to go. The Tar Heels found success by breaking down the Cyclones' zone off the dribble. When point guard Raymond Felton wasn't taking it to the hole himself, he was kicking it out to his teammates along the perimeter. If they missed a shot, May or Marvin Williams was usually there to clean up. Their teamwork on both ends helped the Tar Heels pull away early in the second half. In one 37-second stretch, May rebounded a miss from Iowa State's Will Blalock, scored on an offensive putback after a McCants miss, then got his 10th rebound of the game when a hook shot by Iowa State's Jared Homan bounced off the rim. Seconds later Williams spelled May and promptly swished a jumper on a feed from Jawad Williams that opened a 52-35 lead with 16:42 left to play. A baseline three from McCants gave the Tar Heels a 20-point lead en route to a 92-65 victory and a trip to the Sweet 16 for the first time in five seasons.

Afterward May and Marvin Williams were still bounding with energy, whispering to each other at the press conference like two brothers at a family dinner. They couldn't hide their fascination with how well they had played together: 44 points and 32 rebounds. The only thing left for the two to compete for was who could lavish more praise on the other, and even that contest played to a draw.

Williams on May: "He's tough, he can score, he can defend. He's a big-time player."

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