O’Neil: North Carolina’s buzzer-beater is worthy of a rewind


NEW YORK — Pete Nance will go down as the hero because that is the way sports go. Nance was the one who put the ball in the basket, whose turnaround jumper as the regulation buzzer sounded in an amped-up Madison Square Garden sent North Carolina into overtime, and eventually to an 89-84 win against Ohio State.

Except buzzer-beating shots are rarely that simple. They almost always deserve a rewind, involving far more than the glory moment when the ball slips through the net. Think back to some of college basketball’s most memorable shots. Christian Laettner’s money-maker also necessitated Grant Hill to make the perfect pass. For Bryce Drew to hit Valparaiso’s hook-and-ladder, Homer Drew had to have the chutzpah to draw up a hook-and-ladder in the NCAA Tournament. And before Kris Jenkins could win a national title on a buzzer-beating three, Daniel Ochefu had to set a screen to free Ryan Arcidiacono, who in turn had to pass up the shot.

So let’s rewind, shall we? Because in 2.0 seconds there is a bellman’s cart worth of luggage to unpack. This was, for starters, not an ordinary game. At No. 23, Ohio State ranked as the first opponent with any real meat on the bone since North Carolina free-fell from No. 1 to out of the rankings amid a four-game skid. Hubert Davis brushed off any notion that this game was any bigger or more critical than any other, which is fine. Coaches need to say that. So we’ll say it for him: This game was bigger because the Heels needed a quality win. They were 0-4 in Quad 1 wins in the NET rankings.

And yet the Heels’ energy in the first half was so listless and lifeless that the usually calm and polite Davis had to raise his voice several volumes in the halftime locker room.

“I did not speak in tongues, let’s put it that way,” he said.

His players responded with a fury to start the second half, but the Buckeyes, relying heavily on four freshmen, would not go away. Brice Sensabaugh has played in nine college games and is on a trajectory that already has folks in and around Columbus trying to find the proper rookie comparisons. D’Angelo Russell’s name has come up. When Sensabaugh used the split second in which Leaky Black hesitated to jump out on him to nail a go-ahead, pull-up jumper with two seconds left, it seemed a good time to start penning the ode to the freshman.

Davis called a timeout, after which Black inbounded to RJ Davis. RJ Davis caught the ball a half step away from midcourt, crossed the line and signaled for a timeout. All of which reads so simple and even relatively unimportant.

“That play might have been bigger than the one that went to Pete,” Hubert Davis said.

He’s right. The last shot does not happen if this seemingly simple and yet entirely complex work to get to midcourt does not happen.

The Heels have discussed such scenarios during practice, even drew up a few ideas, but it’s not something they’ve executed. In fact, you could argue that North Carolina’s endgame execution prior to this had been … what’s the proper word? God-awful sounds about right. The Heels and Alabama extended a game to four overtimes because no one could figure out how to run a play to end the madness. It’s too painful to relive, frankly. Read this if you’re a masochist, but suffice it to say, no one had North Carolina on its bingo card for team mostly likely to X-and-O a dream scenario.

Yet in the frenetic huddle, Hubert Davis took a calculated risk, opting to trade a few precious tenths of a second for proximity. He told Black to get the ball to RJ Davis, who curled away to get free, and instructed Davis to take no more than one dribble but ensure that one dribble got him over midcourt before he signaled a timeout. The reason? Simple. You can advance the ball and inbound from in front of the bench instead of 94 feet away.

“They were all crowding around the free-throw and 3-point line,” RJ Davis said of Ohio State’s players. “Leaky told me to get closer to midcourt, and he made a great pass.”

Understand, this is not normal. Baseball passes (a la Laettner) or midcourt chucks and a heave are usually the way these things go. So much so that when RJ Davis signaled for the timeout, the very partisan Carolina-blue-clothed Garden crowd didn’t so much collectively grown as mumble, “Huh?”

But those normal game-enders are low-percentage shots that require serious skill and probably a decent dose of luck to actually work. Hubert Davis eliminated some luck but leaned in on his player’s skill.

“That is not an easy play to pull off,” assistant coach Jeff Lebo said. “They did it perfectly.”

The funny part, in retrospect, is the Tar Heels got all of that done, called the timeout with 1.2 seconds left and really didn’t know exactly what they were going to do. Back when Villanova beat the Heels with Jenkins’ three, they ran the play they always ran in that situation. They called it “Nova,” and it had all sorts of iterations depending on how the play went, but everyone knew where to go and what to do because they always practiced.

With 1.2 seconds left, North Carolina called an ad-lib. Here’s where it gets a little hairy. Armando Bacot and other Heels say Lebo drew it up.

“He usually does the defense and doesn’t really get involved in the offense,” Bacot said. “I don’t know. I guess he had an inspiration.”

Asked about his inspiration, however, Lebo demurred.

“Oh no, that was all Coach,” he said, crediting Hubert Davis. “He did it.”

Whoever was in charge drew up a doozie.

Guessing rightly that Ohio State would worry about Bacot (who finished with 28 points), Caleb Love (22) or RJ Davis (21), the Coach Who Shall Not Be Named decided to use the trio as a decoy and aim instead for Nance, who stood nearly across the court from Black, the inbounder.

But again this isn’t as simple as Black throws to Nance, who puts up a shot. First, Nance was standing clear on the other side of the court, which is not close. Merely getting him the ball required a well-timed, perfectly thrown pass, which is not easy to do when your familiarity with the play begins and ends with the whiteboard in the huddle. Enter the assist from the man sitting three rows behind the bench, the one wearing a black turtleneck and gray suit jacket.

Roy Williams is a Dean Smith disciple, which is to say he is someone who practiced everything over and over again, every little pass, every weird situation.

“Oh, I practiced that pass all the time with coach Williams,” Black said. “We worked on that stuff all the time.”

Black, who also smirked that he played a little quarterback back in the day, put the ball above his head and tossed it like a soccer inbound, sending it perfectly across the court and above the reach of Sensabaugh, who was guarding Nance.

And finally it ends there, with Nance. Hubert Davis thought if Black could actually get Nance the ball, the Tar Heels had a pretty good chance to send the game into overtime and flip the momentum. He likes to catch the ball over his shoulder and not only considers the turnaround jumper one of his go-tos, he tends to make them a lot, too.

Then again, putting the ball in Nance’s hands for the final shot is a thing, too. A year ago at this time, Nance was on the verge of eight losses in nine games that would spiral into a 15-16 finish for Northwestern. That is to say, he’s not accustomed to endgame shots going his way. He has since traded his purple uni for that of the blue blood of Carolina, a program that carries a bit more gravitas every time it steps on the court. He was all of 11 games into his UNC career, playing at no less than the building that bills itself as the most famous arena in the world, and there was his coach drawing up a play for him to force overtime.

“No, I wasn’t really nervous,” he said with a grin. “My teammates were pumping me up and, honestly, I’ve been preparing for this my whole career. I knew I put the time in.”

Although the five minutes of overtime needed to happen, the result seemed a foregone conclusion as soon as the ball slipped through the net.

Before they practically danced to their huddle before OT, the Heels surrounded Nance because that’s what happens in these scenarios. Hit the shot. Be the hero. Except it’s never that simple. A whole lot more went into winning the game than just making a shot.

(Photo of Pete Nance and Ohio State’s Justice Sueing: Brad Penner / USA Today)


Related posts

Leave a Comment