Familiar ground: Tar Heels in title game

Mar. 17, 2013 @ 02:10 AM

North Carolina’s 0-2 start to ACC play will be a very distant memory when the Tar Heels take on regular season champion Miami today in the ACC Tournament championship.

The Tar Heels eliminated seventh-seeded Maryland 79-76 Saturday evening in the Greensboro Coliseum, delighting a sellout crowd of 22,169 when Logan Aronhalt’s 3-pointer to tie airballed in the final 10 seconds.

The Tar Heels (24-9), once considered an NCAA bubble team, changed staring lineups after a 26-point loss at Miami on Feb. 9. They’ve only lost to Duke since, once when leading throughout, once in a blowout. It was the first loss to Miami that rocked an 0-2 league start.

Senior Dexter Strickland said the will to win has changed.

“Everybody wants to win the championship,” Strickland said. “The loss to Duke kind of motivated us to become a better team. We felt like we should have won that game, being the fact it was senior day and at home.”

Strickland and Kinston junior Reggie Bullock each scored 15 points for the Tar Heels (24-9). James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston, less than 18 hours after receiving eight stitches on his non-shooting left hand, scored 13 points each.

“P.J. is definitely one of the top five players on our team, and scoring is one of his assets,” said Bullock, who twice drained 3-pointers in the final eight minutes after Maryland rallied within five. “He’s done great things, helping spread the floor and taking pressure off McAdoo and me.”

“I think Hairston playing 36 minutes, first time he’s heard me say this, but he’s a tough sucker,” said North Carolina head coach Roy Williams. “I think his hand bothered him a little bit. But at the same time, I think what he helped us do out on the court was extremely important.”

The Terrapins’ Alex Len scored 20 points, Nick Faust 17 and Dez Wells, who had 30 one night earlier beating Duke, scored 15.

Maryland (22-12), down by 12 several times throughout and as much as 13 with about 11 minutes to go, eventually climbed within 71-70 on a bucket by Len with three minutes left.

Freshman Marcus Paige dropped in a pair of baseline moves in the final three minutes. Aronhalt, the third option running off a sideline screen play, shot with high arch but into the hands of Bullock on Maryland’s last shot.

“Sometimes you don’t win on the scoreboard, but you win,” said Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon. “And we won today as a program. Our program got better.”

But North Carolina’s went on to familiar territory.

The Tar Heels will be bidding for an 18th championship in the tournament, albeit the first since 2008. North Carolina has gone through stretches of more than four years without the title only three other times.

“I feel like we’re up to another challenge,” Bullock said. “They haven’t seen us with our new lineup. I know we have to live on the boards. We have to get out and run them.”

Miami, meanwhile, will be trying to give non-North Carolina teams back-to-back titles for only the second time in 60 years of the event. Maryland and Georgia Tech (1984 and 1985) are the only others.

The Hurricanes could also join the 1985 Yellow Jackets as a regular season and tournament winner not from the Old North State. But first they’ll have to defeat an inspired unit of blue.

“We wanted to get Duke back, but we’re glad we’re in the position we are in now,” Strickland said. “We’ve got to take advantage of it.”

Contact the writer at awooten@hendersondispatch.com.