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The Daily Tar Heel

Tar Heels Shine In New York Spotlight

Click here for more pictures from the game

The Tar Heels are back.

Victories against Penn State, a tough Rutgers team and ODU on the road were enough to put grins on the UNC faithful's faces. But embarrassing No. 2 Kansas and solidly defeating Stanford 74-57 to win the Preseason NIT Championship game Friday was enough to wash the nasty 8-20 taste of last season from anyone's mouth.

"This means the world," said freshman center Sean May. "We just keep rolling. We're pretty high right now, and we just got higher after this win."

UNC smiles were abundant late Friday night at Madison Square Garden as the Tar Heels slipped Preseason NIT Champion T-shirts over their heads. Jawad Williams and Rashad McCants hugged, and Jonathan Holmes cheesed as hard as he could for the abundance of cameras.

"It's a complete turnaround from last year," said sophomore guard Melvin Scott. "Now we're creating spotlight, and we're going to keep moving up. The ACC is tough, but we're taking baby steps, tiny baby steps."

Those baby steps look like leaps and bounds compared to last year's performance. The Tar Heels' handling of the Cardinal extended their record to 5-0, putting them on pace to match last year's win total before the new year rolls in. UNC's comeback from the depths it has never experienced before has the team back in the spotlight.

"It's a high-profile program," said tournament MVP Rashad McCants. "People basically said, 'North Carolina? Ah, they had a bad season. Nobody really pays attention to them. Now, you see North Carolina."

And this North Carolina is the one so many fans ached for last season. The freshmen have relished taking the reins of a program on the fritz. McCants, Raymond Felton and crew have stressed after each win that age ain't nothing but a number. All the while their numbers just keep increasing.

McCants has led the team in scoring three times, and Felton had a career night -- 16 points and seven assists -- with a tournament championship on the line. May's soft touch has given UNC a weapon inside that it went without last year, and the 6-foot-7 center occasionally doubles as a guard for the Tar Heels.

Even the remnants of last year's debacle are looking shiny and new. Jackie Manuel has emerged as a fierce defensive force in UNC's starting lineup, and both he and Williams have improved their scoring averages by more than two points from last season. And they aren't upset at all about sharing the spotlight with the skilled frosh. "It just matters if we win," Williams said.

UNC inevitably will falter, but the team's productive Thanksgiving break proved that the Tar Heels are contenders against any team they face this season.

And despite the buzz surrounding his team, UNC coach Matt Doherty made sure to say that he will not be resting on his laurels. After the Kansas game, Doherty reminded the media that four wins does not make a season. "I hope we just go through and win a lot of basketball games. I don't care about the rankings. I just want to play basketball. Those things become distractions. Expectations and rankings, I could care less about that."

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