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March 19, 2011CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Immediately after hitting a difficult shot in Washington's NCAA tournament opener, ever-confident Huskies guard Isaiah Thomas turned to the loud Georgia fans to his right, put an index finger to his lips and playfully yelled, "Shut up!"
Thomas and the Huskies-2,800 miles from home-will need plenty more big shots and clutch plays to silence the crowd again Sunday afternoon when they face North Carolina in its backyard in an East region third-round game.
And the 5-foot-9 Thomas, whose buzzer-beater won last weekend's Pac-10 tournament, is right where he wants to be.
"I love it," Thomas said Saturday, breaking into a wide smile. "I mean, our backs are up against the wall. We have very few fans here. It feels like everybody is against us like it's been the whole season. So it's nothing new.
"We know it's going to be a lot of baby blue in the crowd. We're ready for it. It's the NCAA tournament."
It's still far from a best-case scenario for Washington to try to secure its second straight appearance in the round of 16.
No team has traveled farther for the first week of the tournament than the seventh-seeded Huskies. The second-seeded Tar Heels had one of the shortest trips and have won 24 consecutive NCAA games in their home state. Their last loss in North Carolina: 1979.
"We're two hours away and we know we have a lot of fans here supporting us," guard Dexter Strickland said. "So the intensity of the crowd will help us get more intensity and play with a better sense of urgency."
Strickland and point guard Kendall Marshall will split time guarding the versatile Thomas, according to coach Roy Williams. They're challenged with trying to slow a sleek guard who can score in a variety of ways.
The junior had 19 points Friday to move into sixth place on the school scoring list as Washington beat Georgia 68-65 for its fourth straight win.
"I would have a hard time finding very many people that can have a more significant impact on the game than he does as a point guard," Williams said.
The game has the potential to be played at a don't-turn-away pace.
Washington entered the tournament third in the nation in scoring at 83.5 points a game. Fast-paced North Carolina beat the nation's fourth-highest scoring team, Long Island University, 102-87 on Friday.
Thomas said the Huskies won't change their style and "you don't want it any other way" in facing another team that wants to run.
"Well, Long Island wanted to run with us, too. We enjoyed that," North Carolina forward Harrison Barnes said. "If they want to run we'll match their intensity."
The 6-foot-8 Barnes is part of a ferocious, NBA-like front line that may swing the balance of this one.
He's joined by 7-footer Tyler Zeller, who scored a career-high 32 points Friday, and 6-10 John Henson, who had a career-best 28. Barnes chipped in with 24 points and 16 rebounds.
Seven-footer Aziz N'Diaye is the only Washington player taller than 6-9. Coach Lorenzo Romar, who replaced 6-5 C.J. Wilcox with 6-8 Darnell Gant in the starting lineup Friday to match up with the bigger Bulldogs, was mum on his plans Saturday.
Perhaps more important is how North Carolina's size will affect Thomas' ability to take it to the basket. Marshall said it was important to make Thomas "uncomfortable" and "put him in positions that he doesn't want to be in."
"You still got to do what's got you here," Thomas said. "I'm going to be highly aggressive to make plays for my teammates."
Washington has plenty of confidence and more experience than the 2009 NCAA champion Tar Heels, who took a detour to the NIT last season. But the venue poses a challenge.
Perhaps the only hope for Washington to gain some support is if fans of hated North Carolina rival Duke, which plays Michigan in the second game at Time Warner Cable Arena, pull for them.
Still, North Carolina is 10-0 in NCAA games in Charlotte and is 28-1 in the state.
"That's pretty good, but 29-1 will look better," Marshall said.
For that to happen, the Tar Heels will likely need to play better than they did Friday. Williams was upset about the team's 18 turnovers, poor transition defense and suspect rebounding.
If they struggle again, the energetic, always-smiling Thomas is ready to pounce as he seizes an opportunity to play one of college basketball's elite programs.
"Michael Jordan, I mean, the best player to ever play the game went there, and then they got a lot of legendary players," Thomas said. "It's basically every kid's dream school. To go to North Carolina or play against them, it's legendary."