The Daily Tar Heel

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Monday February 6th

UNC Withstands Husky Onslaught

It had the intensity of a Final Four showdown, the contentiousness of an off-camera get-together before "Joe Millionaire," the pace of the Daytona 500 and the head-scratching finale of a David Lynch flick.

Add in mini-diatribes by both teams' coaches during and after the game, a dubious foul or two, a blown lead, a dramatic jumper and even more dramatic free throws, and a taunting, surging, court-charging crowd and you've got one hell of a spectacle -- er, college basketball game.

Despite surrendering a lead that at one point swelled to 19 points, North Carolina needed a clutch Jawad Williams bucket and two key free throws by Rashad McCants to hold off No. 6 Connecticut 68-65 before a sellout crowd of 21,750 on Saturday at the Smith Center.

McCants led the Tar Heels with 27 points on 7-of-11 shooting. He also finished nine of 10 from the free-throw line, including a pair with just 3.3 seconds left and UNC clinging to a one-point lead.

"I'm extremely proud ... of my team," said UNC coach Matt Doherty. "The tough thing is getting off to a great lead because you know they're going to make a run. That's UConn."

By the time UConn's Emeka Okafor ended a fast break by slamming home a behind-the-back dish from Taliek Brown with 1:16 to go, the Huskies had erased the Tar Heels' early 23-4 lead and silenced what had been a raucous, jubilant crowd.

But perhaps emboldened by its late-game success against Clemson earlier in the week, UNC shined in the final minute.

It started in the huddle. The Tar Heels came out of a timeout after Okafor's hoop looking to find McCants or Williams.

"I told Ray (Felton) if he didn't get the ball to Rashad, 'Make sure you get it to me, and I'll hit the shot,'" Williams said.

That's exactly what Felton -- and Williams -- did. When the Huskies' Hilton Armstrong couldn't fight through a solid Byron Sanders screen at the free throw line, Williams had a wide-open look.

He pulled up and nailed a 16-footer that gave the Tar Heels the lead once again, this time with 56.9 seconds to go.

Although the Huskies still had plenty of time, they lost their composure late. Guard Ben Gordon, who was averaging 21.8 points a game, missed an open left-wing 3-pointer with 35 seconds left.

UConn would have to foul. The fact that the Huskies didn't do it earlier than they did might have cost them the game.

Huskies' coach Jim Calhoun said he told his team to foul either Jackie Manuel (a 69.4 percent free throw shooter entering the game) or Felton (72.5 percent) after the clock ran down to 20 seconds left.

He likely didn't mean to wait 17 seconds after the clock hit 20. UConn tried to foul Manuel away from the ball but didn't, and ended up fouling McCants, who had dominated the Huskies from the start.

"There was a communication breakdown," Gordon said. "A couple of players, including myself, weren't aware of the amount of time on the clock."

UConn had still another chance at the buzzer, but Gordon's 23-foot trey clanged off the side of the rim, sealing his 5-for-19 night and sending the student section into a court-storming tizzy.

But for all the on-court subplots -- from UNC's effective matchup zone to the big shots that held off the Huskies' late charge, including a three-point play by Sanders with 3:18 to go -- the events surrounding the players were just as intriguing.

Calhoun blasted the officials during the game for calling two quick fouls on Okafor (13 points, six blocks) midway through the second half.

They were the center's third and fourth fouls, and they forced UConn to play without him for a 3:36 stretch late. "You changed the game, buddy," Calhoun screamed at referee Bryan Kersey after Okafor picked up his fourth.

But the strangest part of the night had to have been Doherty's postgame address.

At the start of his press conference, the UNC coach responded to an article in Saturday's (Raleigh) News & Observer that brought up rumors about a strained relationship between Doherty and some of his players, including Felton.

"I just wanted you to know, all right, that I'm making a public statement that my relationship with Raymond is very good," Doherty said. "I push and prod, but there's respect there. And I encourage you to ask (the players)."

With that, Doherty continued the rest of his press conference.

Strange? Definitely. Uncharacteristic of the day? Absolutely not.

The Sports Editor can be reached at sports@unc.edu.

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