Monday, February 11, 2008

Lucas: Senior Night

Adam Lucas on the win over Clemson.

Feb. 10, 2008

Clemson's Demontez Stitt (2) guards North Carolina's Quentin Thomas during the second half of a college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sunday, Feb. 10, 2008. North Carolina won 103-93 in double overtime.
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Somewhere, at some time, you'll be asked to quantify senior leadership.

It's a nebulous concept, especially in the current era of college basketball. Does it really do any good to have one of those players hanging around who has four years of experience? These days, most teams would rather have a one-year guy who can tomahawk dunk and hit three-pointers. As Roy Williams noted in 2005, a perception has almost developed that there's something wrong with players who are still in school in their fourth year.

So next time the topic comes up, you just cite this conversation. Clemson leads Carolina, 79-74, with 2:02 remaining Sunday night. Tyler Hansbrough has just drawn a charge on K.C. Rivers, and the two teams are coming out of a timeout. Carolina senior Quentin Thomas grabs sophomore Wayne Ellington at midcourt. He puts his right hand on the back of Ellington's head and leans in close.

"Things aren't always going to go smoothly," Thomas tells him over the steadily increasing din of 20,767 people. "It's games like this and situations like this that will show us what kind of team we're capable of being. Keep your head up. Keep working. At the end of this game, we're going to be happy."

Anyone could have said those things. Only Thomas did. Even more impressively, then he went out and acted on them.

"Q is so positive with us," Ellington said. "It really helps having him as a senior leader, because he's been through a lot. He's won a championship at Carolina, and that means a lot to us."

There's a certain connotation that goes with the phrase "Carolina senior." You must have smarts. You must have competitiveness. You must have savvy. You must have leadership.

Over the final 15 minutes of Sunday night's game, Quentin Thomas had all of those things. He is on his way to becoming Carolina's all-time winningest player. Coming into the game, he had been a part of 108 victories, and he had the current mark of 117 wins (held by the 1983-84 senior class) in his sights.

But you would have been hard-pressed to pick a signature Thomas game in any of those 108 victories.

Sometimes, 109 is the charm. This was the Quentin Thomas game.

Yes, I understand that Tyler Hansbrough scored 39 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, and had the signature play of the game when he swiped the ball from David Potter and then hurled himself on top of the loose ball to seal the victory. But this is how good Hansbrough is--he scored 39, but there's no guarantee this is the best we'll see from him all season. Who knows? He might drive the bus to the game against Virginia, score 40 points, and then decide to grill his teammates a steak in the locker room. With Hansbrough, you don't rule out anything.

CHAPEL HILL, NC - FEBRUARY 10: Tyler Hansbrough #50 of the North Carolina Tar Heels shoots against Raymond Sykes #12 of the Clemson Tigers during the first half at the Dean E. Smith Center on February 10, 2008 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Every once in a great while a star comes through the Tar Heel hoops universe like Hansbrough. We know what to do with them--we hang their jersey in the front row of the Smith Center. They are exceptional and there is a tangible reward.

Four-year players like Thomas are universal and their rewards are primarily intangible. They are the ones who accept the trophies after big wins ("Give it to the seniors"). They get water first at practice.

On this night, Thomas was Melvin Scott stepping in at point guard against Villanova and Scott Cherry bringing the ball upcourt against Michigan (cue Billy Packer: "I don't know what Dean Smith is doing here.") and Pearce Landry going from playing one minute as a sophomore to scoring nine critical points at Duke as a senior in the legendary 102-100 game.

He was, in other words, a Carolina senior.

I would like to replay for you a possession that you might remember. It was right after Thomas had given Ellington the pep talk, so Clemson still had its 79-74 lead. It probably sounded a little something like this in your head:

"OK, let's get the ball in-bounds here. Oh no, Q, don't dribble behind your back! Tyler, out of the way! No, don't turn it over! Tyler's got it! Why is he 45 feet from the basket? What are we doing? Look at Danny! Tyler, Danny's open!


I don't understand how or why, may never understand how or why, but those types of plays happen in a Carolina comeback. That was especially noteworthy because to that point, the game hadn't followed the normal Tar Heel comeback script. By now, we know it by heart. Get the game under double-digits at halftime (nope). Set a reachable second-half goal to start the frenzy--say, getting the lead down to eight points at the 8:00 mark (nope). Use offensive/defensive substitutions to take advantage of your defensive stopper (nope, the stopper, Marcus Ginyard, was sidelined with a right ankle injury).

And yet, it still happened. Imagine how you feel about winning a football game at Virginia. Almost impossible, right? The Tar Heels have lost big there, they've lost small there...they've just lost, almost all the time. Now extend that feeling of futility to, well, eternity. That's what it's like to be a Clemson fan in Chapel Hill.

Once Green hit his three-pointer and then followed it with another 40 seconds later, it was time to hand the game over to Thomas. With Clemson nursing an 82-80 lead with 30 seconds to play, the Tar Heels ran a favorite set for Ellington.

CHAPEL HILL, NC - FEBRUARY 10: Danny Green #14 of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts after hitting a three-point basket near the end of regulation against the Clemson Tigers at the Dean E. Smith Center on February 10, 2008 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. North Carolina defeated Clemson in double overtime 103-93. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

It was covered.

So instead of forcing it, Thomas peered inside, saw daylight, and knifed to the basket for the game-tying bank shot. That's the kind of play you make when you've been around four years, when you understand the diagram on the clipboard is just a starting point, and when you've executed the same set hundreds of times in practice.

He did it again in overtime, standing at the foul line with a 90-88 Clemson lead and 38 seconds remaining. Have you ever heard 20,000 people try to be completely silent? There is nervous murmuring and then there is a hush as everyone sucks in their breath. Then the shots find the net and there is one big exhale of joy, softened with a low hum of, "Cueeeeeeeeeeeee."

"My dad has probably already called me," Thomas said. "All summer, he told me free throws are going to win games and that I was going to be put in the position to make them."

By the way, between saving the Tar Heels in regulation and overtime Thomas also found time to hold Cliff Hammonds, who had previously been on the way to one of those kinds of games, scoreless over the final 11 minutes of action. The Carolina senior stoned the Clemson senior on the last Tiger possession of regulation, when Oliver Purnell wanted Hammonds to win the game. Instead, Hammonds had to give up the ball because of Thomas's pressure.

Thomas has spent four years praising everyone else and being selfless. Sunday night, he deserved to do a little chest-pounding. Just admit it, Q. After all, you're going to hear it all over campus tomorrow. Tonight, in this gym, at this time, you were the man. Say it, Q. Say, "I'm the man."

"I can't do that," he said. "That's not me. I made free throws and a layup, but it's a team game. I'll never be the type to take credit for a win, especially for this win. Danny made some great shots, Tyler made a great defensive stop at the end, and Wayne had a great game. It was everyone."

Maybe so. But only one of them was a Carolina senior.

"This is the greatest feeling in the world," said Bobby Frasor as he left the locker room.

What, the comeback?

"No. To see a guy like Quentin, a guy who maybe hasn't had the opportunity over his whole career, but has always stayed so positive.

"And tonight, it was Quentin who made the play."

Adam Lucas most recently collaborated on a behind-the-scenes look at Carolina Basketball with Wes Miller. The Road To Blue Heaven is available now. Lucas's other books on Carolina basketball include The Best Game Ever, which chronicles the 1957 national championship season, Going Home Again, which focuses on Roy Williams's return to Carolina, and Led By Their Dreams, a collaboration with Steve Kirschner and Matt Bowers on the 2005 championship team.

No comments: