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UNC vs. Tennessee: Moments that changed the game

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What contributed to the twists and turns of UNC’s win over the Volunteers

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

In any basketball game, the game isn’t won or lost in the final minute. This is especially true, counterintuitively, in games that come down to a few points. A win (or loss) comes from a body of work, and sometimes it’s difficult to determine what factors played a key role. In Sunday’s game vs. Tennessee, Justin Jackson’s layup and Brandon Robinson’s tip-in put the Heels up for good.

But, what else happened on Sunday evening that got the game to that point? What happened after those plays that sealed the win? Some possible answers to those questions are “basketball plays,” involving players running fast, jumping high, or shooting accurately. Others, the ones that I’ll focus on below, are different kinds of plays. They’re the decisions that don’t show up on the stat sheet or the box score, but change the game nonetheless. There were a few in Sunday’s game that were perceived with various levels of significance, but proved to be momentous after the fact.

An early, “pointless” timeout.

The first seemingly insignificant, but key moment was with 10:41 left in the half when Tennessee was up 18-13. As many of you saw, the Vols were shooting pretty well at that point, and had built a small lead on Carolina. After getting the ball off of a miss by Luke Maye, the Volunteers looked out of sync on offense. They weren’t getting any movement, so they called a timeout on the floor.

Watching the game, I was a little puzzled by this. Normally when a play breaks down on offense, the point guard hunts the ball and pulls it out. This time, Tennessee resorted to a timeout when they simply didn’t seem like they needed one. Rick Barnes gathered his team, got everyone on the same page, and set up a play. Not three seconds after inbounding the ball after the timeout, Kyle Alexander was laying the ball in to go up 20-13. That was part of a 12-2 run by the Volunteers that extended their lead to 15.

At the time, it seemed silly to call a timeout 14 of the way through the game. However, it allowed Tennessee to regroup, and get an easy inbound bucket to keep the momentum going. Basketball is a game of runs, and confidence is contagious. The Vols players knew they needed to get a quality look at the basket to keep their momentum, and that’s why they called a timeout. Without it, they might not have built the lead and confidence they did early in the game.

Stilman White: Coach on the floor

It’s no secret that Roy Williams doesn’t like to call timeouts. As frustrating as it is, we as Carolina fans have to trust that it will teach the guys how to figure things out for themselves, like he says it will. I feel confident that Coach Williams would have let his players figure it out with 20 seconds left in the half. Stilman White didn’t want to.

Being the point guard, and therefore the leader of the offense, he didn’t like what he saw. Now, this wasn’t the last 20 seconds of the game. It was the last 20 seconds of the half. It probably didn’t seem very important in the grand scheme of things. This is except for what the timeout let to. Carolina emerged from the timeout and ran a curl for Justin Jackson that enabled him to score one of his trademarks floaters just before time expired. It was his first basket of the game, which surely boosted his confidence right before heading to the locker room.

Jackson then immediately followed that floater with a no-look pass for a Kenny Williams layup, and then a layup of his own to cut the lead to two. Justin Jackson only had seven points on Sunday, and four of them game at arguably some of the most important points of the game. Where did it start? A tactical decision by Silman White to get all of his guys on the same page.

Tony Bradley for Kennedy Meeks

It was one key decision that helped solidify the win for Carolina. With 8.9 seconds left, and Carolina up by one, Kennedy Meeks snagged Kenny Williams’ miss and was fouled immediately. Meeks missed the first free throw, and sunk the second to give UNC a two-point lead. It would have been completely justifiable for Coach Williams to leave the senior forward in the game for the final play of the game. He didn’t.

After Meeks made his second free throw, he was replaced by his taller and longer teammate, Tony Bradley. Bradley went on to block Lamonte Turner’s layup, and seal the win for the Tar Heels. Who knows if Kennedy Meeks would have done the same thing if he were in the game. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Coach Williams knew that Bradley could be effective on defense during the last play of the game, and he was. It was a basketball play that kept Tennessee from tying the game, but it wouldn’t have happened without Roy Williams’ calculated decision.

The three events listed above that changed the game weren’t players performing athletically. Plenty of plays where they did made the game what is was, but not without people performing mentally. Sometimes some intangibles are irrelevant on the surface, but have much more of an impact upon a closer look. These “plays” made UNC vs. UT the back and forth game that it was.

Watch the full replay of Sunday’s win vs. Tennessee here, and tune in at 5:45 on Saturday to watch the Heels take on Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic.