CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Sunday's North Carolina-Washington matchup was a second-round game, but if you didn't know any better you would guess the two squads would were playing for a spot in the Final Four.
"Dogfight" is the best way to describe the matchup of the two high-octane teams. Both teams are conducted by crafty point guards, have extremely talented freshmen and on Sunday wanted nothing more than to dismantle each other on the floor.
It was a show, and whether you were in the arena or watching at home, you were glad you bought a ticket. Statistically, the two teams were locked up down the stretch. North Carolina shot 47 percent from the field, Washington 46 percent. Washington grabbed 40 rebounds, North Carolina 37. The Tar Heels had 18 assists, the Huskies 17. Fast paced, lots of energy -- the kind of game people had been waiting for in Charlotte.
|Isaiah Thomas leads UW to the brink of a repeat appearance in the Sweet 16. (Getty Images)|
It was exactly what everyone had been hoping for here. The first flight of games included blowouts of 30-plus points for Duke and Michigan as well as sloppy wins by North Carolina and Washington. A game of this intensity and magnitude does not happen very often, but it seems to be more frequent around March.
"It felt like there was a ring on the line," said North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes. "It felt like when we played Duke in Chapel Hill. So intense, so much on the line."
Washington stole the show early, jumping out to a 26-15 lead and showing the nation that it was much more than an upset special. The Huskies' performance equaled that of a top seed, and they were stepping up at just the right time.
Guards Isaiah Thomas and Venoy Overton rose to the occasion in the first half. They were the pulse of the Washington offense, pushing the ball up the floor and distributing to the Huskies' best shooters in space. They also took turns matching up with North Carolina freshman point guard Kendall Marshall. They made him work for every basket and forced three early turnovers. North Carolina struggled at times this season keeping up with teams that could drive and dish. This was Washington's game plan.
But just as they have done so many times in the second half of the season, the Tar Heels made their run. Tyler Zeller went to work on the block, scoring six of his 23 points on three straight possessions to cut the Huskies' lead to 33-30. From there on out there were five ties, 11 lead changes and no team led by more than six points. It was the kind of game that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up at the beginning of each possession. After halftime, some fans simply refused to sit down as each minute felt like it could determine the outcome. This was the big stage, and after 39 minutes of elite basketball this play was destined to have a memorable ending.
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North Carolina and Washington exchanged missed opportunities on the offensive end and the score stood at 84-80 until Scott Suggs cut the Tar Heels' lead to 1 with a deep 3. There were 17 seconds on the clock, and Washington got one last chance thanks to a missed Marshall free throw. Marshall had been perfect from the line until that shot, but things only got crazier from there.
Isaiah Thomas has been a giant killer before. Just ask Arizona. With eight seconds left, this was his time to rise and fire -- sink the Tar Heels and take Washington back to the Sweet 16 for the second year in a row. Instead, it was Venoy Overton driving to the hole and missing a layup. However, North Carolina was unable to secure the ball and deflected it out of bounds.
Believe it or not, Washington was still alive. The dueling fan bases in the arena became polar opposites. Elation for the Huskies, and the look on the faces of North Carolina fans was sheer terror. John Henson guarded the inbounds pass under the basket, and used his length to tip the entry into the hands of Dexter Strickland. Two free throws later the Tar Heels led 86-83, but Washington still had one last chance.
Overton once again took it on himself to seize the stage. He let a 35-foot runner fall short and out of bounds. But wait, the ball was knocked out of bounds by North Carolina? All 18,000-plus stood, as once again Washington got another crack at taking down the Tar Heels.
They got the ball with 0.5 seconds left, and finally got it in Thomas' hands. His 3-point attempt looked short, but was knocked away by Henson. Washington fans screamed for goaltending, and it may have been. It was an officiating controversy once again (you tired of hearing that yet?). The explanation on the call was that Thomas' foot was on the line and even if goaltending was called it would not have mattered.
Give Washington credit -- the Huskies did almost everything they needed to do in order to advance out of the third round. If the Huskies had pulled off the victory I would have struggled to call it an upset. Washington played like a top seed and both teams looked like they belong among the tournament's last teams standing.
At first glance, you expected a run-of-the-mill 2-7 matchup. But what you got was a heavyweight bout between two teams that brought the best out of each other. Now the Tar Heels take their show to Newark, N.J., for the Eastern Regional.
We can only hope the next performance is entertaining, but it is going to be very difficult to top what we saw on the floor in Sunday's matinee.