Barnes buckets key for UNC (again)

LAS VEGAS -- With so much attention on point guard Kendall Marshall’s assist totals (he recorded 14 again Friday night), forward John Henson’s offensive improvement (18 points) and the Tar Heels’ outside shooting (five 3-pointers from P.J. Hairston), North Carolina sophomore Harrison Barnes has been somewhat overshadowed during his top-ranked team’s undefeated (now 5-0) start.

But during a key second-half stretch of UNC’s 87-62 victory over South Carolina in the semifinals of the Las Vegas Invitational, the All-American small forward quietly reasserted why he is so important to the Tar Heels.

Despite 17 first-half turnovers, the Gamecocks cut their deficit to 53-43 with 14:13 left at Orleans Arena on a 3-pointer by Malik Cooke. But Barnes followed with a 3-pointer of his own, then a breakaway dunk to make sure South Carolina (2-3) got no closer.

Sure, the Tar Heels probably would have still won without those buckets; coach Roy Williams said those points weren’t particularly memorable to him because he never really thought the game was in danger.

But those shots reinforced a facet of Barnes (who led all scorers with 21, by the way) that fans saw when he buried winning or go-ahead buckets in the final moments of seven games last season. When his team is in a tight spot -- be it trailing by 3 to a great team or ahead by only 10 to a squad that already had lost to the likes of Elon and Tennessee State -- his first instinct is to be the guy to get UNC out of it.

And he did it. Again.

“He was all the way across the court, and I can remember how badly he wanted the ball,’’ said Marshall, who now has dished out at least 14 assists in three of his past four games. “So I know our team has full faith that he’s going to make those shots, and they were timely ... it stretched the lead; it took some of the wind out of their sails.”

Which was key, because it wasn’t a particularly seamless game.

Although UNC forced 11 South Carolina turnovers in the first nine minutes and built a 21-6 lead, the massive blowout it looked to be early on never manifested itself. The Gamecocks stuck around by making half their shots and outrebounding UNC 21-12 in the first half.

“Early it was a 15-point game, but they kept coming back and making plays, and that was very uncomfortable,’’ Williams said. “I was never worried about the outcome of the game; I was just worried about how we played.”

Williams was happier with his team’s defensive effort after halftime, as it held South Carolina to 36.7 percent shooting over the final 20 minutes. Hairston’s 3-pointers also helped, as did Marshall’s masterful assists.

“Kendall, I thought, was sensational,’’ Williams said. “He had 14 assists and only one turnover, six steals -- and those kinds of stats, it’s really important to our team. To say that he leads us would be the mini-statement of the year.”

Barnes agreed, saying converting that 3 in the second half was made easier because “it was coming to me from the best passer in college basketball. He got the ball to me in the right positions, and I was able to score.”

Right when the Tar Heels needed him to, yet again.

“We struggled to come out mentally today; we weren’t into our usual rhythm,’’ said Barnes, whose squad will face 6-0 UNLV in the title game Saturday night. “ ... So I tried to do whatever I could to help the team.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.