Sunday, November 20, 2005

Three Points, Times Two, In Tar Heel Escapes

“Relief” was the word of the day in Chapel Hill on Saturday as UNC twice averted hugely embarrassing defeats.  Both the football and basketball teams eked out three-point victories when defeat would have brought an onslaught of ridicule.


First, the gridiron Heels edged Duke 24–21 in Kenan Stadium.  The lowly Blue Devils entered the game at 1–9, with the only victory coming over Division 1–AA VMI.  The program bears no resemblance to the perennial basketball powerhouse in Durham.  62 percent of students polled at the Duke-Seton Hall basketball game on Wednesday were unaware that the school had a football team.  The football program’s marketing campaign features two slogans: “Steve Spurrier coached here 16 years ago!” and “Duke Football: Your source for comedy since ‘Seinfeld’ ended.”


However, UNC found itself trailing 21–17 late in the fourth quarter.  Ronnie McGill, the star of the game with 146 yards rushing, scored on a 3–yard touchdown run with 1:38 remaining to give Carolina the victory.  With the win, the 5–5 Heels kept their bowl hopes alive.  However, they will have to triumph as heavy underdogs next Saturday at Virginia Tech to extend their season.  Also, the NCAA may rule that any team who needs to rally in the waning minutes to defeat Duke is automatically unworthy of a bowl invitation.


While not pretty, the victory was UNC’s 15th in the last 16 editions of the series.  The Victory Bell, kept in custody by the winner, will soon officially be renamed the Tar Heel Bell.  The lowly Blue Devils (journalists are prohibited from simply writing “the Blue Devils” in a football context) were philosophical about the latest defeat.  Head coach Ted Roof remarked, “There are no moral victories.  We came in here to win and… Oh, who am I kidding?  Of course I’ll take a moral victory!  We came close to not losing – that’s awesome, dude!”


After the narrow escape in Kenan Stadium, the basketball Tar Heels won 83–80 over Gardner-Webb, which sounds more like a brokerage company than a basketball team.  While an upset would have raised eyebrows around the nation, a loss in the Smith Center would have been far less surprising to informed Carolina fans than one on the football field.  Coming off a national championship season, UNC lost its top seven scorers and started three freshmen on Saturday.  The opposing Bulldogs, on the other hand, finished first in the American Sun Conference last year and returned all five starters.  That being said, a loss by UNC would have meant this: “NORTH CAROLINA LOSES TO GARDNER-WEBB!”


The victory came in dramatic fashion as senior David Noel nailed the winning three-pointer with 1.8 seconds remaining.  Last year in crunch time, the Heels could look to lottery picks Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants, and Marvin Williams.  In Saturday’s game, the go-to guy was a former walk-on who averaged 3.9 points per game last season.  However, this year’s team proved that they are far superior on November 19 to last year’s juggernaut, which fell on that date to Santa Clara.  From November 20 forward, last year’s Heels get the nod.


Carolina’s next contest is Tuesday against Cleveland State.  Unless the Cleveland Cavaliers were scheduled by mistake, the Heels figure to cruise.  Ultimately UNC will land in the tournament again this year, but inconsistency will be a prominent theme in Chapel Hill.  This is to be expected with a roster so young, you expect to see “Hogwarts” on the front of their uniforms.  At least they passed their first test on Saturday, thereby avoiding the constant, “Are you kidding me?  You lost to WHO???” catcalls.


Thus, on Saturday night, Tar Heel fans could collectively exhale.  Across the country, Stanford was less fortunate.  The 13th-ranked Cardinal hoopsters endured a 79–63 thumping by UC-Irvine at Maples Pavilion.  Then the football team rolled over and died in a 27–3 home loss in “The Sorta Big Game” versus Cal.  As a result, students on campuses nationwide were united in one thought: “I’m so glad I don’t go to Stanford.”