Barnes rescued UNC, and not for the first time

DEAN SMITH CENTER/CHAPEL HILL — The finale of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge featured a pair of top-10 teams, and UNC survived a bodacious challenge from Wisconsin to prevail 60-57 in a game that was long on defense and short on offense.

Carolina found itself in an urgent situation after falling to UNLV last Saturday night, given that the contest against the Badgers is followed on Saturday by a trip to No. 1 Kentucky. While no November game can be considered essential, Carolina has entered the teeth of its non-conference schedule — most December games occur against mid-major opponents — and seeding for March’s NCAA Tournament certainly will be impacted.

The Badgers posed an especially difficult challenge for Carolina due to their tempo; few major conference opponents limit possessions to such an extreme degree. Given that Roy Williams implores his club to play as quickly as intelligently possible, the contrast made for an intriguing, if grueling competition.

Four factors lifted the Heels to victory, and all had been questioned after the team’s early season performances. First, UNC showed up on the backboards. After losing the rebounding battle decisively against UNLV and South Carolina in its preceding contests, UNC beat up Wisconsin 42-29 on the glass.

John Henson led the way with 17 boards, and part of the success can be attributed to Wisconsin’s unwillingness to open up transition opportunities for UNC. Again, the name of the game for U-W is to stifle pace.

Carolina also shot the ball well from the free throw line. The Heels buried an impressive 16-for-18 in the second half, including several clutch foul shots in the closing minutes. When you consider that UNC missed 10 free throws in the second half alone against UNLV, the turnaround was somewhat surprising and definitely crucial to victory.

The third point to consider is the team’s three-point defense. Carolina has given up far too many open looks from the perimeter this season, but against Wisconsin the defense held the Badgers — one of the nation’s most prolific shooting clubs — to 8-for-28 from long range. UNC continually contested and thwarted shooting opportunities, forcing contested attempts and then finishing the possession by corralling the rebound.

Thanks largely to the efforts of Dexter Strickland, Carolina was able to hold All-American point guard Jordan Taylor to 18 points on 6-for-20 shooting, including just 3-for-11 from deep.

Finally, there’s Harrison Barnes. Although statistically improved over last year, the true “Black Falcon” had been absent through the early games. His quiet, 2-for-5 performance in the first half indicated more of the same, but he donned the cape and scored 14 of his 20 points in the second half. Barnes knocked in a pair of threes and hit 6-for-7 from the foul line, seeming to lose himself in the game rather than playing with Professor X introversion, as is his tendency.

Ultimately, while fans understandably may desire more domination, Carolina won the game the way it must against elite opposition: Defense, rebounding and just enough offense to triumph.

For the first time this season, the team itself appeared to embrace that truth. Now, on to what will be the most hyped non-conference game of the entire season. Click here to view the UNC/U-W box score.