The moment Carolina lost control
Posted March 23, 2014
Updated March 24, 2014
Momentum from game to game is a myth. What we most often see within a season or in a playoff series is a team's growing confidence or adjustments in personnel and/or strategy not yet being effectively countered. But momentum? After a three meals, a minimum of a night's rest and often a flight across a time zone? I think not.
Within a game, however, momentum is very real. And, when you have it on your side, it's important to avoid the mistakes that will allow "Uncle Mo" to reconsider his allegiance. With 4:24 to play in North Carolina's eventual loss to Iowa State on Sunday, Kennedy Meeks converted a pass from J.P. Tokoto into a lay-up and a 76-68 lead. It was the continuation of a 20-8 run by the Tar Heels that saw them flip a four-point deficit into the momentum that appeared to be carrying them to Madison Square Garden and a meeting with Connecticut in the Sweet Sixteen.
On the other end of the floor, Meeks continued his outstanding night with a steal, giving the Heels the ball and an eight-point lead with just under four minutes left. It was then that UNC would commit the critical error of the game.
Marcus Paige, who for the better part of five months had been one of the best players in the league, if not the nation, attempted an ill-advised three-pointer – with about 30 seconds left on the shot clock – and the miss, followed by a long-range bucket from Cyclones forward Naz Long gave Iowa State belief that they were still in the game.
In certain situations, a good possession, even if it doesn't result in points, is all that you really want. With under four minutes left, an eight-point lead in your back pocket and the momentum of a second half being played exactly the way Roy Williams would have dreamed, a mistake-free finish was all that was necessary to carry UNC to New York City. That uncharacteristic mistake by Paige left the door cracked, and ISU kicked it down.
The Cyclones scored eight straight points, and the lead that took Carolina some six minutes to construct crumbled in just over 100 seconds. Back-to-back three pointers plus a driving lay-up pulled Iowa State even and left momentum in the center circle – up for grabs like a jump ball.
Yes, the Tar Heels would still pull ahead – twice they led by three points, the last coming with 55 seconds to play thanks to a James Michael McAdoo short jumper in the lane. However, the game was now a toss-up, and would be decided by one shot one way or another, and when you consider that the Cyclones scored on seven consecutive possessions to close out the game, well, you know what that means.
Words don't really do justice to Paige's sophomore season. He was the unexpected superstar for Roy Williams' team. As fifth-year senior Leslie McDonald and departed junior P.J. Hairston struggled with their eligibility issues in November and into December, it was Paige who took command of the team and established himself as the unquestioned leader. He led the team in scoring, assists and game-changing plays. He was, along with N.C. State's T.J. Warren, the most irreplaceable player in the ACC. Among Paige's best qualities, as important as his three-point accuracy, defensive prowess and feel for the game, was his incredibly high basketball I.Q. He just didn't make mental mistakes.
That's what made that three-point attempt, not exactly an uncontested look, so strange to see. We can talk about the turnover that led to Iowa State's go-ahead basket, a DeAndre Kane breakaway lay-up, with 27 seconds remaining. We can talk about Paige and his teammates being unaware of Kane's presence – alone – at the other end of the court. And, we can talk about a little bit of a brain freeze that saw the Tar Heels fail to call timeout before there was no time on the clock to stop – though, to be fair, it did appear that Williams was trying to get the attention of referee Tony Greene to no avail.
Too often, it's what happens last that we remember the most. But, in my opinion, the first major error was that quick-trigger, three pointer with four minutes to play that left the door open for the transfer of momentum and once that switch was made it was anyone's game.
Uncle Mo has no loyalty. He's a front runner.