In retrospect, perhaps it’s a good thing North Carolina point guard Larry Drew II didn’t realize that the 6-feet-9 guy standing in the way of his game-winner was the NCAA’s all-time leading shot-blocker.
Because instead of over-thinking – as he admits to doing too often this season -- the sophomore drove the length of the court on instinct.
Instead of missing, he laid it up with his left hand over Bulldog Jarvis Varnado – beating No. 1 seed Mississippi State 76-74 at Humphrey Coliseum, and pushing his fourth-seeded team to the third round of the National Invitation Tournament. The Tar Heels (18-16) will play either N.C. State or UAB on Tuesday for the right to advance to the final four at Madison Square Garden.
“It was definitely impressive that Larry was able to finish up the basket the way that he did, against one of the best shot blockers to ever play the game of basketball in there,’’ said Tar Heel senior Deon Thompson. “So it was a big-time shot for us, and it was fun to see it go in.”
Especially for Drew, a ballhandler who has been the subject of fan criticism and conjecture throughout UNC’s freefall from reigning national champion to NIT bubble team.
The sophomore said one shot – and one victory – won’t totally make up for all of the negatives that have happened this year, but “it feels really good to go out there and have a game like the one we played today, and win in the fashion that we did.,’’ he said. “It seems like other teams have been doing this to us this whole year It’s one game, all it is is one game but now we can look forward to another one.”
It didn’t look like the Tar Heels would get another one, especially when they trailed by as many as 12 points in the first five minutes, saw their freshman battle back for a 36-33 halftime lead, then fell behind, again, by eight points in the second half.
However, said MSU coach Rick Stansbury, “They made the plays down the stretch that you have to make to win games.”
With a minute left, Bulldogs guard Barry Stewart buried a free throw to give his team a 72-71 advantage. But with 32 seconds left, UNC junior Will Graves – who scored 15 of his team-high 17 points in the second half – banked in a 3-pointer to give the Tar Heels a 74-72 edge.
“I was just shooting it like it was in practice or any other day,’’ Graves said. “When it came off my hands, I felt confident.”
Things got hairy again, though, when freshman Dexter Strickland went to the free throw line for what could have been a game-sealing one-and-one – only to miss the first, and see Stewart counter with two free throws, tying it 74-74 with 8.9 second left.
But after the second free throw, Drew took the inbounds pass, raced down the left side, took the ball to the bucket and laid up a high floater with his left hand over Varnado’s outstretched arm.
“I just old myself, it was a do or die situation,’’ said Drew, who finished with 5 points, 6 assists and 4 turnovers. “I feel like I can get to the paint any time I want to. I got to the paint, and I saw Jarvis on my right side, and I just went up high to try to give it a chance to go in. And luckily, it did.”
Said Varnado: “It was coming at me; I knew he was going to take the shot, and just give credit to him for making a good layup.”
UNC, which also got 12 points from freshman John Henson, made 48.5 percent of its shots and out-scored MSU 42-14 in the paint.
The Bulldogs (24-12), led by Stewart’s 18 points, made 11 of 29 3-pointers, and got four blocks from Varnado, the three-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
Not that Drew knew who he was facing at the time.
“When I came back in [the locker room], everybody was like, ‘That’s the all-time leading shot blocker in the history, ever, in the NCAA,’’ he said. If you would have taken a snapshot [of that play] by the time you got into the paint, you probably had a 2 percent chance of ball going in, and when you were going up, you still had a 2 percent chance. And when it’s on the backboard, you’re like, ‘It might go in!’”