If you’re a devout Tar Heel and ACC sports fan, who did not succumb to the Saturday sunshine, it turned out to be a helluva weekend watch, beginning with the Carolina-Kentucky tip at high noon and ending with Russell Wilson hoisting the Big 10 Championship MVP trophy close to midnight.
In between was a classic college basketball game, two looks at possible new (and old) Carolina football coaches, and Clemson coming back from the dead to reach the Orange Bowl for the first time in 30 years. And, during a late afternoon window, you still could have caught UNC’s “other” soccer team live, since the NCAA quarterfinal was at Fetzer Field before a record home crowd.
After the improved effort against Wisconsin Wednesday night, the hoop Heels had every expectation of taking down the top-ranked Wildcats at Rupp Arena. And it would have happened if not for some silly mistakes that will hopefully be history by March – particularly two missed dunks and fouling a three-point shooter with the clock about to expire – the game might not have come down to John Henson being on the wrong end of a blocked shot.
Carolina finally found its mark from behind the arc, hitting 11 of 18 that helped give the visitors in blue a nine-point lead in the first half and the traditionally raucous Rupp fans a slight panic attack. It was a bit of fool’s gold because, when it counted, Carolina could not pound the ball inside and finish like a team with its size and skill should be able to do and put the game away.
To the contrary, the Heels looked dead and buried, losing the lead for good with 7:30 to play and falling behind by five points late in the fray. Big three-pointers by Reggie Bullock and Harrison Barnes put them back in position and they actually had the ball down one with 25 ticks to go. Roy Williams should have called one of those timeouts he likes to save for the end instead of letting his team play on.
The reason: Barnes has become almost deadly off a set play out of a TO, while he finds it tougher to get the ball in position to shoot from the freelance offense. But who knows? The Heels still would have had to inbound in front of their own bench, which is always a risky proposition. So Ol’ Roy waved them on.
The rock ended up going to Tyler Zeller, who looked like he was fouled at least twice before it wound up in Henson’s hands 12 feet away from the winner. But Kentucky’s Anthony Davis gave Gumby a little of his own medicine, somehow tipping the shot that might have produced another Fantastic Finish. Meanwhile, still four seconds remained and everyone acted like the game was over including the refs, who missed an obvious Kentucky travel in its own backcourt.
“It’s a long season,” sighed Williams, “probably a lot of people don’t remember that we beat Kentucky at our place early last year. They only remember we lost to them in the (NCAA) round of eight.” The implication was clear, that what just went around could come around again next March.
Channeling Football or Futball
Viewers who could not let go of the clicker switched over to ABC to watch the end of the surprising Conference USA championship game between Southern Mississippi and Houston. Why would they care? Well, one of the guys on the opposing sidelines could be stalking the Kenan Stadium white stripe this fall.
Supposedly, Southern Miss’ Larry Fedora and Houston’s Kevin Sumlin are on Bubba Cunningham’s short list that got shorter when Vanderbilt pre-empted suitors for its coach, James Franklin, by suddenly making a big-time commitment to football – at a school where a coach NEVER makes more than the chancellor by rule. The 39-year-old Franklin, who led the Commodores to only their fifth bowl eligible season in history, was at the top of Bubba’s blotter.
So now it could be Fedora or Sumlin, both in their late 40’s with about five good years on their resumes. Trouble is some bigger schools are also looking, like Texas A&M (where Fedora grew up and Sumlin once worked as an assistant). By the way, Fedora’s Golden Eagles convincingly ended a perfect season for Sumlin’s Cougars, so neither is going to a big bowl and could be hired away this week.
At 3:30 came the Texas-Baylor game on ABC, which was still of interest to those Mack Brown fans who hope two mediocre seasons will get him run out of Austin and back to Chapel Hill for the final stop of his coaching career. The rumor mill says that Brown and Bubba have talked, if for no more than advice on coaches, but there are some wealthy oilmen in Austin who have forgotten what Brown has done for the Longhorns since 1998 while remembering they are still paying him $5 million a year.
“I plan to coach a lot longer, and when I stop it won’t be over some twit from Topeka, Kansas,” Brown responded recently, probably meaning a “tweet” from the said Topeka twit. Those who are wanting Brown, at 60 the same age as Butch Davis, to come home (because, like Roy Williams in 2003, the family business needs him) know he’s about the only coach out there who can galvanize a still-divided fan base and sell out the stadium before the first kickoff of 2012.
So when Baylor and Heisman Trophy candidate RGIII (quarterback Robert Griffin, the third) doubled up the Horns 48-24, it left Texas with a 7-5 record to follow last year’s 5-7 finish and some Tar Heels with the hope that Mack actually might come back. After all, he and Sally still have a home in Linville and he never did move into his office at the Kenan Football Center. Or maybe he and Cunningham were just talking candidates.
After that, there was still time to run out and catch the second half of Carolina’s 2-0 win over St. Mary’s on goals by Matt Hedges and Ben Speas. With the three-decade dominance of UNC women’s soccer and the recent coaching change from Elmar Bolowich to fomer assistant Carlos Somoano, it has gone unnoticed to many that Carolina has now reached the men’s College Cup four consecutive years. The fete was witnessed by 5,810 fans, a record crowd at Fetzer Field. Interestingly, if Carolina and Bolowich’s new school Creighton win their national semifinals, the two men who built UNC men’s soccer into a power will meet for the NCAA championship Sunday.
Back home in front of the flat screen, there was more football worth watching – two games with ACC ties. Clemson, which had won eight straight and all but clinched the Coastal Division before losing three of the next four, was supposed to be Tiger meat for perennially ranked Virginia Tech. But the ACC’s best quarterback and two of its best receivers came alive and sent the Hokies back to the hills. Clemson is returning to Miami, where it won the 1981 national championship at the old Orange Bowl long since demolished. The name’s still the same but now the game is played at the NFL Dolphins’ stadium.
That makes five different ACC schools – Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest – that have made it since the league went to a championship game. Good balance, if not great football. As far as title games go, the ACC’s was a dud.
Not so for the Big Ten, which staged its first championship game after expanding to 12 members. The last game of the day went down to the last play, a long punt return by Michigan State that would have carried the Spartans to victory had it not been called back by a penalty and gave the title and MVP award to Wisconsin and quarterback Russell Wilson.
Wilson, of course, was released by N.C. State to play his senior season at another school. He chose Wisconsin and led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day on ABC. While Wilson travels 1500 miles to Pasadena, his old team will bus 150 miles to Charlotte to play in the newly named Belk Bowl (formerly the tire and muffler bowl) against Louisville.
That will be one of many games not worth watching in December.