With a trip to the National Invitation Tournament's final four on the line tonight, once-struggling North Carolina has a chance to finish the season on a note of revival.
Its two-game NIT run has been fueled by something that was missing almost all season: strong finishes.
Last Tuesday, the fourth-seeded Tar Heels pulled away from William and Mary in the first round with an 11-0 run in the final 5 minutes, 9 seconds. Saturday, point guard Larry Drew II's driving floater off the glass at Mississippi State marked North Carolina's first last-second, game-winning shot of the season.
North Carolina hopes to continue its positive play in end-game situations tonight (9, ESPN), as it faces second-seeded Alabama-Birmingham (25-8) for a chance to advance the semifinals at New York's Madison Square Garden.
"I just think there's a do-or-die mentality that we have now, knowing that if you lose now, it's over - the season is over," Drew said Monday. "And nobody here wants to stop playing."
Both endings were a far cry from the first 32 games, when the Tar Heels (18-16) were more apt to miss shots or throw the ball away in clutch situations - when they managed to be in clutch situations.
The Tar Heels, who began the season ranked sixth in The Associated Press poll but finished it on the NIT bubble, found themselves in tight situations down the stretch of multiple games, but couldn't close out victories.
The difference between the losses and the Tar Heels' past two wins, coach Roy Williams said, is confidence, smarter choices, and better shooting.
"Against Georgia Tech at home, Larry missed a layup that would have given us the lead in the last, oh, 20 seconds or something like that - and it was not as difficult as the layup that he made Saturday at Mississippi State," Williams said.
"You've heard me say (everything) looks better when the ball goes in the basket, and that's part of it. But I do believe we are making some better decisions down the stretch in the last two games."
Alabama-Birmingham matched its school record for victories thanks to an aggressive defense that held opponents to 40.7 percent shooting; and a star wing in Elijah Millsap, who leads Conference USA in rebounding (9.4) and averages a team-best 16 points.
Blazers coach Mike Davis said the most important thing his squad must do against North Carolina is box out and limit the Tar Heels' easy scoring opportunities.
"After watching the Mississippi State game, I was really afraid ... because they block shots, they're averaging 15 offensive rebounds a game - that's a lot of rebounds," Davis said. "And they're really good in transition. So putting that together at the right time, it could lead to something dangerous."
Zeller 50-50 to play
North Carolina sophomore Tyler Zeller, who suffered a concussion and a laceration above his left eye that required five stitches on Saturday, is questionable to play tonight.
"I talked to the trainer last night, and they said it's 50-50," Williams said. "It just depends on how he feels this afternoon, and what he feels like when he wakes up tomorrow."
Zeller, a 7-foot reserve forward, has a combined 20 points in the two NIT games.