Third Time a Charm for UNC

GREENSBORO--- The last time North Carolina took the court against Miami February 9 in Coral Gables, the Tar Heels were embarrassed 87-61 by the then eighth-ranked Hurricanes. It was one of the worst losses of the Roy Williams era.
It was a strange nightmare where it felt, at least to the Hall of Fame coach, as if nothing he did was going to matter in the end.
"My memory of looking at that clock and seeing the score as I walked off the court and they way I felt during the game is that we had no control over anything," said Williams Saturday afternoon after UNC advanced to the ACC Tournament finals with a thrilling win over Maryland.
As they did when they blew out Duke on its home court the 'Canes reveled in the dominating performance against UNC, showboating with dunks off the backboard and other celebratory moves that the Tar Heel players haven't forgotten about.
Now they get a chance to rid themselves of those sour memories with a triumph that would bring the ACC Tournament championship trophy to Chapel Hill for the first time since 2008, when the current Tar Heel players were either in high school or middle school.
"It was hard, just being beaten like that. It was really hard, just seeing them throw it off the backboard and celebrating and stuff like that. No player wants to see that," said junior Leslie McDonald. "We've always had that picture in our mind, and now we get a chance to play them again, so we're going to keep that in the back of our mind."
"For our team, we're just ecstatic to get to play them again. We just can't wait to play them and try to execute."
"It would mean a lot (to knock off Miami). We've had some ups and downs this year and we went through a period where we struggled, and a lot of people kind of doubted us, but the great thing about that is we stuck together as a team, and we finally started getting things clicking," added freshman point guard Marcus Paige.
"So to get a chance to play Miami (again), who has beaten us, like Coach said, pretty badly, and have a chance to cut down the nets and be ACC Tournament champs---to win an ACC Tournament championship would just be awesome, to see the season come full-circle like that, going into the NCAA Tournament."
There's an old cliche in basketball---it's very difficult to beat a team three times in the same season.
UNC themselves did that Saturday afternoon with its narrow triumph over Maryland, and now they shift their focus to try and avoid having it done to them.
"We can't let a team beat us three times. We're too good for that, so hopefully it doesn't happen," said senior Dexter Strickland. "My team is too good to be beaten three times. So I have confidence in my team, and we've just got to be ready to play."
"I think we're a much better team (since the last time we played Miami). Us being a better team than the first two times they beat us. I don't think the outcome of the game we had in Miami, I don't think we're capable of having that outcome again. I think we're a much better team," Strickland added.
The next game after Carolina was pounded in Coral Gables, Coach Williams went with the smaller lineup---a lineup that has produced an 8-2 record over the last five weeks leading up to today's ACC title game.
The Tar Heels are confident that they're a better team and much more capable of handling Miami now that they're more athletic and more dangerous offensively.
"The smaller lineup has helped us," said Williams. "We're a better basketball team. Is it a world beater? Is it the newest thing that ever happened? The best thing that ever happened? No."
"We've got some deficiencies but it was the best thing for this team (going small). Whether it presents any different problems for them (Miami), we'll have to wait and see."
So exactly what will it take for the Tar Heels to avenge the two earlier losses to the 'Canes and beat them when it counts the most?
"We just have to play better. I mean, they're a heck of a basketball team (Miami)," said Williams. "(We can) play better. Make some shots. Hopefully not give them open shots. They kicked us pretty hard down at their place (in Coral Gables) so hopefully we will get some fresh legs underneath us between now and (Sunday afternoon).
"We have to play great defensively. They're a good shooting team, and they have big bodies to get rebounds. So we've got to put a body on them, make sure we box out and get a hand up on shots," added McDonald. "Playing them twice, we know what they like to do. Just knowing and being familiar with the team, we know what we have to do. So we've got to go out there and execute and do what Coach tells us."
One key area in which UNC has to improve is along the offensive glass.
Maryland dominated in that statistic on Saturday, turning 13 offensive rebounds into 24 points, compared to just four for UNC.
With veteran big men such as Kenny Kadji, Julian Gamble, and Reggie Johnson, who have given UNC problems in recent games, the Hurricanes will look for a similar outcome.
Controlling the boards is likely Miami's best chance of taking control against a UNC team that is shooting the ball better than before, playing better defense, and taking better care of the basketball.
Against Maryland UNC had just seven turnovers all day, and just two in the first half.
Make no mistake---Miami has plenty to play for on Sunday afternoon.
Not only are they going after the school's first-ever ACC Tournament title in its first title game appearance, they're looking to lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Conference tourney losses by Duke, Indiana, and Georgetown have opened the door for the 'Canes.
"They're a big-time team and they've shown it all year long," said Coach Williams of Miami. "They deserve everything, all the special things that have been said about them. They have scorers at every position. (Kenny) Kadji is a tremendously difficult matchup. Julian Gamble and Reggie Johnson inside are a load on the backboards. Shane Larkin has had as good a year as any point guard in college basketball. Durand Scott was off the charts (against N.C. State)."
One thing that Carolina can look forward to on Sunday is a large Greensboro Coliseum crowd filled to the brim with Tar Heel supporters.
With N.C. State losing on Saturday and Duke the day before, the seats will likely be crammed with powder blue-clad UNC fans eager to see the team exact some revenge on the new darlings of the ACC.
So the stage is set.
Two teams. One upstart in the midst of a storybook season looking to take its program to the next level, and the other a college basketball blue-blood looking to restore its place atop Tobacco Road.
It has all the makings of high drama on one of the most dramatic days of the year in this sport.