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March 20, 2010

Heels advance past MSU in dramatic fashion

STARKVILLE, Miss. - Point guard Larry Drew II has certainly taken his share of the blame for North Carolina's woes this season.

Against Mississippi State, he got to be the hero for a change.

The sophomore hit a floating left-handed layup with two seconds remaining to give North Carolina a 76-74 win against the top-seeded Bulldogs in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.

It was the No. 4 seed Tar Heels' first game-winning shot of the season, and it couldn't have come at a better time.

"We were very lucky in the unluckiest year I've ever had," UNC coach Roy Williams said.

Carolina was down by as many as eight points in the second half before pulling back into a tie with six minutes to go.

And they had to make the comeback without Tyler Zeller who had seven points and seven rebounds before leaving the game with a cut over his eye with 12 minutes to go. He received five stitches and was diagnosed as possibly having a concussion.

That meant the Tar Heels (18-16) would need a little luck.

They got it when Will Graves, who scored 15 of his team-high 17 points in the second half, banked in a 3-pointer with 32 seconds to go to give UNC a 74-72 lead.

"When it came off my hands, I felt confident, but God did the rest," said Graves, who had been 2 for 16 from 3-point range in his past three games but hit 4 of 6 against the Bulldogs (24-12).

Freshman Dexter Strickland had a chance to seal the game but missed the front end of a 1-and-1, leading to a UNC foul that allowed Barry Stewart - who led MSU with 18 points - to tie the game with a pair of free throws with 8.9 seconds remaining.

When the second one went in, Drew knew exactly what he was going to do, and that was get down the floor as fast as he could.

"I told myself it was a do-or-die situation," Drew said. "It was all instinct. I just told myself to get to the paint. I just wanted to get a shot off."

That wasn't going to be easy.

Drew said he uses his left hand "when I have to," adding, "It's not my first choice." But with the outstretched arm of Jarvis Varnado, the NCAA's all-time leading shot-blocker, between Drew and the basket, there wasn't much choice but to go to his off hand for the game-winner.

While UNC's players jumped off the bench in celebration after Drew's shot, Williams - in a season when he hasn't had the chance to experience much elation - held out for the final two seconds before he exhaled.

"I just looked at the clock and didn't want us to foul because we've done some weird things this year," Williams said.

But once time expired, Williams said he was "ecstatic" for his beleaguered point guard, as well as for the slumping Graves.

"I'm happy for both those guys because I was ready to kill them early in the game," Williams said.

The game began looking like so many of Carolina's defeats this year: Mississippi State went on a big run while the Tar Heels turned the ball over more often than they took a shot.

A mere 2 minutes into the game, with his team trailing 7-2, Williams became so angry with his starters that he couldn't even wait for a stoppage to get subs in, instead calling timeout to get new players on the floor and four starters into scolding range on the bench.

That group included Drew and Graves.

Mississippi State continued to score after the benching thanks to its outside shooting and went up by 12 early.

But the Bulldogs cooled off while Carolina's freshmen accounted for 25 of the team's 36 first-half points on the way to a three-point lead at the break.

That wouldn't last, as MSU came back to go up 49-41 six minutes into the second half.

It looked like the Tar Heels were headed for the kind of collapse that had become commonplace for them.

Instead, they rallied and got to enjoy doing to the Bulldogs what so many teams have done to them this year.

"This isn't going to wipe off everything else we've been doing this season," Drew said. But he admitted he couldn't deny feeling good about the measure of redemption: "Who wouldn't be having fun in the situation we're in right now?"


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