It’s a great week to be a Tar Heels basketball fan. Now if only the team can figure out how to win.
But, Jeff, you say. Carolina has 31 wins already. The team knows how to win.
The Heels are a talented team that blows people out. Crunch time is a tougher matter.
See, out of those 31 wins, 20 of them were double-digit blowouts.
In close games (five points or less or overtime), the Heels only had three wins in the regular season and a fourth on Sunday against Kentucky, a team that beat the Heels by three in the regular season.
In a Feb. 9 meeting with Duke, the Heels were only two points behind with a minute left and lost by eight.
In a Feb. 27 loss to Virginia, Carolina was just one point behind with nine and a half minutes left. The whole team would score just four points after that.
In the ACC Tournament game with Duke, Carolina had an eight-point lead when Joel Berry went to the bench with foul trouble. I knew right then the team was in trouble.
Coach Roy Williams kept Berry on the bench too long, and by the time the guard went back in, Duke held a seven-point lead and won by 10.
Justin Jackson was named ACC player of the year, and he did put up good numbers. However, with Berry on the bench, Jackson laid an egg and let Duke back in it.
Right after Berry went to the bench, Jackson hit a three-pointer to make it 59-48. Things looked good.
Then he disappeared for three minutes — not a single shot attempt or rebound as Duke cut the margin to 63-59.
Then he missed four straight shots and had two turnovers before Berry came back in the game.
He proceeded to miss all four three-point tries in the closing minutes. His only point was splitting a pair of free throws.
For the last 14 minutes of the game, the player of the year went 0-8 and 1-2 at the stripe with two TOs.
Last season, the Heels made it to the championship game on the backs of two experienced seniors: Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson. When the team needed a lift, the ball could go to them.
(Oh, and for the record, I still contend UNC deserved the title last year because Paige was boxing out when a Villanova player went Ray Lewis with a forearm to the back, sending Paige off the court and into the basket support. If that obvious foul had been called, there would’ve been no last-second to give Villanova the win.)
As good as this year’s team has been, Carolina just doesn’t have anyone that I feel comfortable taking over a game — or hitting the big shot like Paige did to tie the game in the closing seconds.
Jackson averages a nice 18.2 points, 4.7 boards and 2.8 assists, but makes me nervous. He was bad in a loss to Georgia Tech. In a 15-point loss to Miami, he shot okay, but didn’t do anything else — he had more turnovers (4) than he did rebounds, steals, blocks and assists combined (2).
In the final four games of the regular season, Jackson went 7-31 (22.6 percent) from long range. He was 3-13 from distance last weekend.
Berry seems to have more competitive fire, but some games his jumper is hit or miss. And when he’s off, Berry doesn’t do enough to make his team better. A point guard averaging only 3.6 assists on a run-and-gun team? He had more turnovers than assists last week. Despite a good shooting night against Butler, Berry is still only 6-29 (20.7 percent) from long range the past five games.
A couple of years ago I wrote about LeBron James putting forth a Herculean effort in the NBA Finals. And yet, he didn’t show that clutch performance one would expect from a superstar. He is a great player all four quarters, but he hasn’t ascended in the last minutes of big games.
Against the Spurs in 2013, the Heat were down in the final two minutes. LeBron promptly missed three straight shots and had two turnovers. Luckily he had the good sense in the closing seconds to pass the ball off to Ray Allen for the game-winning three-pointer. Ray Allen is clutch.
Robert Horry’s nickname was Big Shot Rob because he came through the clutch so many times. Derek Fisher statistically was more likely to hit the big basket than Kobe Bryant.
Chris Webber was the leader of the Fab Five, and led Sacramento to great regular-season marks; but it was Kings’ teammate Mike Bibby who killed the Lakers in the playoffs.
A player doesn’t have to be great to be clutch.
There’s no doubt Peyton Manning was a better quarterback than his brother, but Eli showed during two Super Bowl runs that he knows how to rise to the occasion in the big game. Peyton almost gave away a Super Bowl to the Panthers.
The final seconds of the Kentucky game went by so fast that I didn’t have time to stop and think about who should take the final shot for Carolina. But if I had, I probably would have thought of Luke Maye, who shot 8-13 against Duke in two regular-season games.
Imagine being a reserve only scoring four points a game. Then in the NCAA Tournament you are named most outstanding player of the regional after averaging 16.5 points in two games.
He scored 142 in the regular season’s 34 games, and now he has 50 in four tourney games.
Now THAT is rising to the occasion.
Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692.