March 21, 2010 12:14:00 AM
David Miller -
STARKVILLE -- North Carolina is still North Carolina.
After exchanging leads in a pressure-packed NIT contest on Saturday, the North Carolina Tar Heels escaped Humphrey Coliseum by edging the Mississippi State Bulldogs 76-74.
Larry Drew made the winning basket for North Carolina with 2.8 seconds remaining with a high-banked kisser off the glass.
The shot, ironically, floated over all-time NCAA blocked shots leader Jarvis Varnado and sent Mississippi State (24-12) crashing out of the NIT in heart-breaking fashion just six days after another devastating loss to Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game.
"I think we were due for a game like this," Drew said.
Drew went coast to coast and pulled up for the floating shot after Mississippi State''s Barry Stewart tied the score 74-74 with two free throws.
On North Carolina''s previous possession, Will Graves banked in a 3-pointer to give the Tar Heels a 74-72 lead.
It''s been an uncharacteristically down year for North Carolina (18-16), which missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003 before coach Roy Williams took over at his alma mater.
Williams didn''t mid attributing the final two plays to luck.
"It''s been the unluckiest year I''ve had in my life, but we''re very lucky," Williams said.
After Stewart tied the score at the free throw line, Williams opted to not to call a timeout and let his players make a play.
"I don''t like to call a timeout in that situation and let someone set up their defense," Williams said. "We do work on that sort of stuff, even with just four seconds on the clock, and I was ecstatic we made the play. I told Larry just to push it. After we played Georgia Tech at our place, he missed one that was contested. I knew he''d get one later and it''d be a game-winner."
Drew, was confident all six seconds it took to give the Tar Heels the game-winner.
"It was all instinct; just get in the paint and get a shot off," Drew said. "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. I just got to the hole and I saw Jarvis (Varnado) to my right side. I just wanted to get up there and give it a chance to go in. Luckily, it did."
Varnado, who finished with 14 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots, would have loved for his fifth swat to come on Drew''s shot, but instead watched his college career end in heartbreak.
"He made one hell of a layup," Varnado said. "Give credit to him because I contested it. I did come close to touching it, but he stretched it out a little bit."
Graves led North Carolina with 17 points and John Henson scored 10 of his 12 points in the first half."
Stewart led Mississippi State with 18 points and five rebounds.
The game was the last collegiate game for both Varnado and Stewart as the Tennessee natives closed their careers with work-man like performances.
"It''s something you can''t describe," Stewart said after a long pause. "I''ve enjoyed every minute of it. The support. The support today. I appreciate all the fans cheering for all four years."
The favored Bulldogs couldn''t have asked for a better start to the game, opening on a 16-4 run that was powered by three steals.
But as Williams kept his seat on the bench and rode out the early storm, his Tar Heels never lost composure and used a mix of mid-range jump shots from the top of the key and tempo-induced dunks to rally for a 30-23 lead in the first half.
"I speak for myself, but we came out on a slow start and they hit us right in the mouth," Graves said. "It was more focus to get up to the 3-point shooters. We had a game against William and Mary where we had to do the same thing. It was all about re-focusing."
Leslie McDonald had five points and Tyler Zeller had a pair of dunks during the comeback and John Henson was 5 of 8 from the floor for 10 points in the first half.
The Bulldogs overcame a rugged 6-of-20 shooting slump with a pair of 3s from Phil Turner and Ravern Johnson to close to within 36-33 at halftime.
Mississippi State opened the second half with an 11-5 run behind a pair of 3s from Johnson and one from Stewart, who set up an alley-oop to Varnado.
The first media timeout of the second half did little to quell the Bulldogs'' run as Bost knocked down a trey and Kodi Augustus made a layup to push MSU''s lead to 53-47.
North Carolina''s advantage inside, where it finished with a 42-14 points in the paint edge, was matched by Mississippi State''s 11-of-29 performance from beyond the arc.
What the loss boiled down to for Mississippi State was the last play of the game.
According to MSU coach Rick Stansbury, there wasn''t much to do about Drew''s floater with two seconds left.
"We got everybody off the line, it''s just one of those plays, man," Stansbury said. "A percentage of times, those things are going to happen. Just not very often. No break, they just drove that sucker to the hole, and he did. I know he didn''t get a clean layup."