Lucas: What's Next
COLLEGE PARK--As Carolina's team bus wound its way from BWI airport to College Park on Tuesday night, ace bus driver Lonnie Campbell cued up the in-cabin DirecTV. On the screens throughout the bus, Ohio State and Indiana were going to halftime.
The first ESPN topic during the break, with Carolina less than 24 hours away from tipping off at the Comcast Center against Maryland: the Tar Heels' hugely important upcoming game...against Duke. Could P.J. Hairston defend Ryan Kelly? What about Marcus Paige? What about the Duke guards? All of those topics were being discussed, with the subjects of the discussion sittiing there watching. It was a little like having a parent-teacher conference with the subject in the room.
So, yes, Carolina's players were well aware of what was still to come this week. Which makes it all the more impressive that they proceeded to go out and play like the Terrapins were the only visible team on the schedule, claiming a 79-68 road win that assures the Tar Heels of avoiding Thursday in the ACC Tournament.
By all rights, the story should start and end with the play of Reggie Bullock and Hairston, who combined for 41 of the visitors' 79.
The pair of wings scored 20 of Carolina's first 22 points in the second half and combined to shoot 13-for-21 from the field. Bullock, who notched his second straight double-double, managed to score 19 points on just eight shots. Each player snatched three steals. Hairston's perimeter shot was spotty (2-for-7 from the three-point line), so he maturely was more aggressive taking the ball to the rim and attempted a game-high nine free throws.
They were also among a host of Tar Heels who went headlong for loose balls. Hairston's dive had the highest degree of difficulty, as he turned a near-cartwheel over the scorer's table chasing one potential rebound.
"That type of hustle and playing hard is usually what sparks us," Hairston said. "Usually, when we get a play like that, pretty soon we get a turnover and then we're rolling."
And they were rolling, of course, because of the phenomenal play of Hairston and Bullock. But quietly, there were some other Tar Heels who made virtually invisible contributions that were similarly pivotal.
Take Desmond Hubert and Brice Johnson. The box score says they played just a combined 16 minutes. But in a game when the Terps picked up 12 of their first 21 points off offensive rebounds, the Tar Heel reserve big men were essential--along with James Michael McAdoo--in cutting off Maryland's second opportunities. Mark Turgeon's team had 12 second-chance points in the first 12:30...but then scored just two second-chance points over the next 14 minutes.
"Boxing out was a big emphasis in practice," Hubert said. "We wanted to make sure we boxed out our guys, and that allowed us to get our offense going because of our defense and getting the rebound and getting out and running."
That running was often keyed by Paige, who finished with a career-high eight turnovers and just three assists. It was completely unlike his recent performances, and it was, according to Paige, "probably the worst game of basketball I've ever played."
He was particularly shaky in a 20-second stretch late in the second half when Maryland applied some full-court pressure and immediately went on a 7-0 run thanks to two turnovers by the freshman. That led to a timeout from Roy Williams, who said absolutely nothing to his point guard. What would he say at that moment? "Marcus, try not to turn the ball over."
Paige knew that already. So during the timeout, Williams settled his team, then sent them back onto the court with the Comcast Center crowd slowly working its way into a frenzy. For most of the evening, the supposed electric crowd (they'd been inside the building over two hours before game time to rehearse some of their cheers) had been much like the alleged winter storm-slow to materialize. But now, facing just a six-point deficit and with six minutes to go, suddenly there was energy.
The Tar Heels got the ball into the frontcourt-success!-and then used some clock. Perhaps they used too much clock. The possession got late, and Paige had the ball on the left wing. Hairston popped free near the top of the key just briefly, and the point guard saw him, but instead of making the pass, looked off the Tar Heels' hottest scorer and shot the ball himself.
It was a gutsy shot under the best of circumstances. It was an enormously courageous shot given Paige's erratic last minute of play. But the ball swished cleanly through, and the game was never really in doubt again.
"I had to know the time and score in that situation," Paige said. "If I'd passed the ball to P.J. there, it's probably going to put him in a bad spot because he'd have to make a quick decision and take a bad shot."
Lastly, there is Strickland, who has quietly compiled 31 assists and three turnovers over his last six games and put up six assists and zero turnovers on a night when the Tar Heels needed him to be steady because of Paige's struggles. He leads the ACC in assist/turnover in conference games by a wide margin-nearly a 2:1 gap over his next-closest competitor.
The senior will play his last game in the Smith Center on Saturday night. He had family in attendance Wednesday night at Maryland, and he knows his time is getting short. He's getting into the "lasts" part of his Tar Heel career, when it starts getting a little more real: last trip to Maryland, last home game, last ACC Tournament.
And he knows exactly what is coming next. After the win, the Tar Heels raced to their locker room and celebrated, then heard from their head coach. "Guys, let's enjoy this one," Williams told them. "I don't even know who we play next."
In that moment, considering we are talking about a coach who sometimes has to be reminded of the next destination when Carolina advances in the NCAA Tournament, and probably has only a 50-50 chance of guessing the location of next weekend's ACC Tournament, it was believable. He really had been completely focused on Maryland, and now he wanted to relish it for just a few minutes.
The comment hung there for less than a second.
"Coach," Strickland said, "we play Duke next."