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Sunday December 5th

No. 4 UNC battles past N.C. State in ACC tournament semifinals

Watts and Marshall make key plays to defeat the Wolfpack 69-67

Lorenzo Brown and Harrison Barnes dive for a loose ball during the first half of play. The Tar Heel forward scored 16 points during the game.
Buy Photos Lorenzo Brown and Harrison Barnes dive for a loose ball during the first half of play. The Tar Heel forward scored 16 points during the game.

ATLANTA — As the buzzer sounded in Philips Arena on Saturday and North Carolina pulled in a 69-67 win against N.C. State, senior Justin Watts ran for the ball and gave it a quick kiss.

“It’s not something I normally do, but it was a game where we were out there and they played well, they played physical, fouled hard,” Watts said. “We just had to fight it out. Afterwards, it was more like the little emotion I had, I just let go of.”

It was Watts, after all, that made what coach Roy Williams called the biggest play of the game in the Tar Heels’ fight against the Wolfpack in the ACC tournament semifinals.

From the beginning, North Carolina’s third matchup against N.C. State this season was a back-and-forth battle largely determined on the foul line and through numerous and-1 opportunities.

With junior John Henson on the bench in a suit with his sprained wrist — a decision that was made just before game time — UNC’s bench again played a crucial role in pushing the Tar Heels along to their 31st ACC tournament title game.

Leading that charge was Watts.

With five seconds left in the game and UNC leading N.C. State 69-67, the Wolfpack’s Scott Wood was passing the ball underneath the basket to find center DeShawn Painter for a chance to tie the game.

“We had new assignments at the timeout as to who was guarding who and had a mix up,” Williams said. “Painter was underneath the basket wide open and I’m screaming ‘go get him’ to one of our guys. J Watts, who was not his man, heard or saw me, I couldn’t tell you which one, and sprinted down there and saved us because they were throwing it to Painter for a layup.”

Watts, who was running in from the foul line, quickly intercepted the pass at the five-second mark to make his third steal of the game and lobbed it down court from mid-air to avoid falling out of bounds.

Although his lob was then stolen, the Wolfpack couldn’t convert 1.2 seconds of opportunity into a shot.

Adding to the Tar Heels’ bench success was freshman James Michael McAdoo for the second game in a row. McAdoo earned his first career start in place of Henson and scored nine points in the matchup despite early foul trouble.

His success in the game was just one more way Watts has seen the bench’s improvement since the start of the season.

“I think we’re coming together,” Watts said. “I don’t think we’re nowhere near peaking. With the talent we have coming off the bench, you know, James, P.J., and Stilman, but we’re just trying to work everyday in practice so we can help those guys out when we’re called on.”

But the Tar Heels’ veteran players also rose to the occasion of making key plays for North Carolina.

Although it was Tyler Zeller that led UNC’s shooting performance with 23 points, point guard Kendall Marshall earned the team’s lone double-double with 12 points and 10 assists. His stat line made Marshall the first player in UNC history to earn three straight double-doubles with points and assists.

He also notched the game-winning shot when Marshall fired the team’s last jumper to pull UNC out of a tie game at 67. The clutch play, though, didn’t exactly go as planned.

“We wanted to put the ball in (Barnes’) hands,” Marshall said. “He does a tremendous job of taking and making those shots. Lorenzo Brown did a tremendous job on defense on that play. By the time I got it back, we didn’t have time to get into another set, and I was able to make the shot.”

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