UNC's Henson emerges as difference-maker

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Harrison Barnes knew from the first day of practice at North Carolina that you don’t try to get the ball over John Henson without some sort of fake.

“I found out you can’t throw a pass over John or shoot straight over him,’’ said the Carolina freshman of his 6-foot-10 teammate. “John makes basketball-savvy plays.’’

And that’s why the Tar Heels are going to be a tough out for the rest of this tournament.

North Carolina can score at all five positions and the Tar Heels are just as giving in allowing opponents to score. The Tar Heels are the first team since 1990 to advance to the Sweet 16 after allowing over 80 points in its first two games.

But Henson is enough of a difference-maker for the Tar Heels to make up for their often-porous defense.

Washington’s Justin Holiday learned Barnes’ cardinal rule about Henson with six seconds left in Sunday’s East region third-round game in Charlotte. Holiday tried, unsuccessfully, to make an inbounds pass over the top of Henson. His deflection ended up in the hands of UNC's Dexter Strickland, who was fouled and converted two free throws for an 86-83 lead, a score that would hold up and send the Tar Heels into the Sweet 16.

“I was trying to get the ball to Isaiah [Thomas],’’ Holiday said. “I thought he could do something with it.’’

Holiday said he knew about Henson’s length and just didn’t make the right play in trying to throw over the top.

“I was very surprised that he did,’’ Henson said. “I thought it was kind of a bad idea.’’

Holiday’s decision was one of a series of miscues by Washington in the final seconds. Holiday had the ball out of bounds after Venoy Overton drove to the basket and missed. He didn’t have a clear shot at the basket because the Carolina defense came over to help.

“I missed the layup but I was trying to avoid taking a charge and then it was contested,’’ Overton said. “I wish I could take it back and go straight up. I was trying to make an aggressive move.’’

Henson and his frontcourt teammate, 7-foot Tyler Zeller, form an imposing frontline and alter plenty of shots. Washington actually out-rebounded the Tar Heels 40-37 but four blocks by Henson, one by Zeller, and seven steals (three by Barnes), were the kind of key defensive plays that have helped the Tar Heels win games in March.

“A lot of this has to do with our guards getting out and pressuring,’’ Zeller said. “It makes our job easier. John does a great job of blocking shots and if not blocking, altering. He’s great on that baseline inbounds. I’m grateful for him. I don’t know if teams have seen his length before.’’

Washington had another chance to tie the game, but Overton, defended well by Strickland along the sideline, inexplicably hurled up a shot with a second remaining. Overton said he got caught jumping in the air and just threw it up.

“I was anticipating getting fouled,’’ Overton said.

The ball went out of bounds off Henson, though, with 0.5 seconds left. Thomas took his only shot in the final 11 seconds, a 2-pointer at the buzzer that fell short, but wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

“I don’t know, it was Coach’s call,’’ Thomas said as to why he didn’t touch the ball on the last two possessions prior to the shot at the buzzer. “I really couldn’t tell you. I thought the ball would be in my hands. It wasn’t, but that’s not the reason why we lost. It’s very frustrating. I feel like I’m the leader on this team and had confidence in myself and my teammates have confidence in me. I know [Holiday] was trying to get it to me, but Henson got his hands on it and I didn’t get it.’’

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said if he had to do it over again he would want the ball in Thomas’ hands. He said Overton won a game against UCLA by taking the last shot, so he wasn’t against Overton looking to be aggressive, but it was Thomas who made the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Arizona in the Pac-10 tournament.

The Huskies were in a position to win this game, playing the game they wanted.

“That’s what’s disappointing,’’ Romar said. “We do everything we want to do, put yourself in position to win but down the stretch we didn’t get it done.’’

And for all of North Carolina’s defensive lapses, the Tar Heels made the plays that mattered most defensively, and in the end, will head to Newark next week for the Sweet 16.

“This means a lot, we’ve struggled at times, going out of the top 25, getting blown out by 20 against Georgia Tech; it’s been a long season,’’ Barnes said. “There was a lot of talk about lack of experience and age, but we make up for it with heart in the end and find a way to win.’’