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March 23, 2010BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Larry Drew II is really starting to like crunch time in the National Invitation Tournament.
North Carolina's sophomore point guard - fresh off a game-winning layup against Mississippi State in the second round - had a key basket and free throws in the final minute to help the fourth-seeded Tar Heels to a 60-55 win against No. 2 seed UAB in the NIT quarterfinals.
"My confidence is right where it should be going into the last couple of games of the season," Drew said. "I'm just trying to showcase it."
Drew finished with 11 points, seven rebounds and six assists, but was not the only Tar Heel who thrived in Carolina's third-straight win, which sends them back to Madison Square Garden.
Senior Deon Thompson scored 14 points and grabbed a season-high 12 rebounds to notch his first double-double since November.
Freshman John Henson tied a career high with 14 points, scoring four of those in the final minutes to snap a 47-all tie and give UNC (19-16) a lead it wouldn't relinquish.
And as a whole, the Tar Heels responded to their 11 first-half turnovers by having just four in the second half.
"It looks like a totally different ball club to me," Marcus Ginyard said. "We're doing a better job defensively and executing on offense. We're still making little mistakes here and there, but we're pulling ourselves together after those mistakes and playing with a little more fire."
The Tar Heels certainly had their struggles against the Blazers (25-9), who had never lost an NIT home game and had won 33 straight non-conference games at Bartow Arena.
In the first half, it was the fact that they managed just one field goal over the final 7:12 of the first half and went to the break tied at 25 instead of enjoying capitalizing on the early lead they jumped out to.
In the second, it was an inability to seal the game when they had the chance, which left it up to Henson and Drew to put things to bed in the final minutes.
Leading 47-42, Carolina forced two missed shots by the Blazers but gave up offensive rebounds that eventually led to a pair of UAB free throws with five minutes to go.
"I think we played defense for a minute and a half," Williams said.
On the next UAB possession, Will Graves fouled Jamarr Sanders - who had four first-half 3-pointers - on a 3-point shot, and Sanders hit all three to tie the game at 47.
Luckily for Carolina, it was able to neutralize UAB's best weapon, double-double machine Elijah Millsap, when it counted.
Millsap had just three points and two rebounds in the first half, when the Heels were struggling to score.
And while Millsap came out on fire after the break, scoring the Blazers' first 13 points of the second half over a six-minutes span., he quickly vanished again. After that torrid start, he didn't score again until a garbage-time layup with 13 seconds to go.
By then Drew had already iced the game.
The Blazers were within three points with a minute to go, and Drew had the ball with his team in desperate need of a basket.
Just like he did in hitting a game-winner with two seconds to go against Mississippi State three days earlier, Drew drove to the basket with confidence and finished, putting UNC up 54-49 with 46 seconds to go.
When UAB answered with its first field goal in nearly 10 minutes, Drew - a 60-percent free-throw shooter - showed the same coolness in sinking a pair of shots at the line to reclaim the five-point margin.
"Winning definitely gives you that confidence, there's no question about that," Ginyard said. "Everybody's found a lot more confidence in everybody, not just Larry. As a team, we're playing a lot more confident and a lot more composed.
"It just gets back to another opportunity to play and continue to build on this little run that we've got going and end the season with a better taste in our mouth. Everybody's really excited right now."