"Give North Carolina a lot of credit, they finished the plays that determine the outcome of games," MSU Coach Rick Stansbury said. Then added, "We had plenty of opportunities to finish out the game ourselves."
Except Mississippi State (24-12) couldn't complete the contest, leaving more than enough opportunity for Carolina to make plays. And the Tarheels converted some big ones, such as the improbable three-pointer by Will Graves for a two-point lead which effectively dictated how the last half-minute would be played. But no play loomed larger than Drew II's dash up the court down the left side of the lane after UNC inbounded at 8.9 on the clock.
No Bulldog picked Drew up because four figured there was nothing available at the rim guarded by all-time college shot-blocker Jarvis Varnado. "We didn't want him to pitch-back and give (forward John) Henson a drive to the goal," Turner said. "I knew we had Jarvis back there. But he got off a prayer over Jarvis, and it just went in."
"I just told myself it was a do-or-die situation and I feel like I can get to the bank any time I want to," Drew said. "I just got there and saw Jarvis to my right side, I just wanted to get it up there and give it a chance to go in. Luckily, it did."
Stansbury shrugged it off as "just one of those plays that happens. Nobody can draw it up to shoot it like that. Not many people shoot it over Jarvis. It wasn't no clean look, he just slung it over his shoulder." But Drew, who'd only made one other shot all day, slung it in at 2.0 seconds. It fell to Turner to make the desperation heave that had no chance, as the few hundred Tarheel fans among the 9,471 crowd cheered. Home folk were too stunned to even boo the victors, though some rallied enough to applaud their departing team.
The loss followed one unfortunate Mississippi State trend, as for the third time in Stansbury tenure and fourth time overall a Bulldog team was knocked out of a NIT on the other team's last shot. 2010 joined the agonizing endings of 1979, 2001, and 2007. And just as in all those defeats, the Bulldogs were in position(s) to take command and extend their seasons. This team led by a dozen points just five minutes after tipoff, and were up eight twice in the last half.
"Needless to say we feel very fortunate," UNC Coach Roy Williams said. "We were very lucky, and this has been the unluckiest year I've had in my entire life. I'm not saying that just one game evens everything out." But it does give the #4 regional seed Tarheels an excellent chance of reaching Madison Square Garden, while the Bulldogs scatter for the summer.
"Sometimes it bounces your way and sometimes it don't," said Stansbury. "You just have to separate yourself over 40 minutes."
His team separated itself early and easily enough, starting with a three-pointer by point guard Dee Bost just 16 seconds in. That would set the usual Bulldog tone of living, and dying, on outside shooting. More longballs by guards Barry Stewart and Ravern Johnson and a classic three-point play from center Varnado pushed the home team out to a 16-4 lead at 15:00. They were aided in no small part by four Tarheel turnovers in as many minutes. "They hit us right in the mouth," Graves said. Their coach might have done worse than that given the chance.
"I was so mad in the first half at some of our guys and they way they were playing," said Williams. "I was hot and they deserved it." The Carolina coach vented by adjusting the lineup. "I made those other guys made enough at me, they decided to play when they got back in there."
Once North Carolina got the ball under better control they were able to work inside; whether with guard Dexter Strickland attacking the rim for layups or frontcourt Heels Travis Wear and Tyler Zeller making space for short jumpers. It likely saved their day as well that State couldn't stop taking quick outside shots and went frigid with seven-straight misses. Henson finally asserted himself as well with consecutive buckets, putting Carolina in position to take their first lead at 6:49 when Leslie McDonald banked one around Varnado.
The Tarheels were up 30-23 after a lob-dunk by Henson, when the perimeter touch returned as abruptly. Treys by Bost, Turner, and Johnson meant the intermission margin was only 36-33 in favor of the visitors. State had scored 18 of their points on threeballs where the Tarheels had missed their only two outside attempts.
Oddly though North Carolina came out the next half trying to beat the Bulldogs at their own best game and Graves actually made one. But State was happier playing this style and doubled it by threes from Johnson and Stewart. That triggered a 13-0 Bulldog tear with two more longballs along the way to a 49-41 lead at 14:17.
Both centers went down with blows to the face, though it was Zeller knocked-out for the balance of the afternoon. Varnado came back in a couple minutes. Whether or not the respective absences changed tempo, the fact was State's assault slowed to a free-throwing pace while Carolina went back to structured offense. More shots missed but Ginyard and Henson rebounded for dunks to turn momentum blue. That pulled the Dogs inside and this time Carolina got some jumpers to drop.
This included Drew's only trey of the day and another threefer from Graves that had the Heels ahead 64-63. The scoreboard would tilt each way a few more times until, his team trailing 71-68, Graves drew a foul on his layup for the tying play. Just before the minute mark Stewart was fouled hard and needed a rewrap on the right leg during timeout. He made the first, missed the second, and at 27 seconds Graves was running out of shot-clock.
"We were trying to get it inside, and if that wasn't open I had a double-screen come to the top. I was just shooting like it was practice on any other day." Well, perhaps, though Graves had to put some extra arch on the shot to clear an oncoming Johnson. The ball caught a little rim on the way down but was good for the 74-72 lead. Stewart tried to answer with a daring drive of the baseline only to be swatted by Henson, with Strickland getting the rebound and foul.
"It probably didn't develop the way he wanted," Stansbury said. "He was going to get a shot off or draw the foul, he didn't get neither." But it was a 1-and-1 and he missed the first; Stewart ultimately came up with a rolling rebound and was again fouled, the tenth person on the Heels.
This time he made good for both chances and a re-tied game…which set the stage for Drew's deciding drive.
"Give him credit for making a good layup," Varnado said. "He stretched it out and put it over my head." Which meant that despite re-setting his own SEC season record for blocks, with #171 earlier in the afternoon, State's big Swat couldn't get to the one that would have at least pushed the game into overtime.
Graves hit four treys en route to a team-best 17 points, while Henson was the only other Heel in double-figures at 12 to go with a game-best eight rebounds. That mattered because North Carolina held a 41-32 advantage on the glass and used it to almost double the Dogs in second-chance scoring. UNC also shot 48.5% for the day and took eight more shots than State.
Four Bulldogs were in double-digits led by Stewart with 18 in his final college game. Half that total came on three treys by the program's all-time three-point leader, with 277 in four seasons. Varnado also completed his MSU tenure, scoring 14 points with seven boards and four swats. He ended up with 564 blocks in four years.
Bost, the Concord, N.C. native wanted to show up the home-state team and did put in 14 points with three treys and four assists. Johnson added four treys with 13 points and six boards. But State's bench was out-scored 28-11, and while the Dogs hit 11 total threes it took 29 attempts—or half their total shots—to do it.
"We just couldn't hold out," said Turner, who had nine of those Bulldog bench points. "That's what it was this season." A season that produced another SEC Western Division title, and a memorable overtime run at the SEC Tournament. Yet for all that, Mississippi State had to settle for playing in the lesser post-season party and could not even make that last long enough.
"We lost some we wish we wouldn't have, no point in beating a dead horse about it," Turner said. "It's over and over, and I'm satisfied with our team's effort throughout the team. We just didn't get the breaks that we wish we could have."
Varnado certainly wishes he could have a few more games in college ball. Still… "A helluva ride," he said. "We won a lot of championships here, I'm thankful for that. Our fans have been great, the atmosphere, the environment. And the Bulldogs will be back."