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March 11, 2012ATLANTA--- North Carolina's ACC championship matchup with Florida State Sunday afternoon in Philips Arena---at least for two-thirds of the game---played out remarkably similarly to the last time the Tar Heels and Seminoles met in Tallahassee.
UNC fans didn't have to be reminded about the way Florida State manhandled the Tar Heels across the board in its 90-57 win in late January, but the Seminoles came out and played a game worthy of the January performance and arguably even better, shooting 62.5 percent in the first half and 58.9 percent for the game as the third-seeded Seminoles knocked off the top-seeded Tar Heels, 85-82.
"We are really disappointed in the outcome of the game, and congratulations to Leonard (Hamilton) and his staff, and Florida State's team," said UNC head coach Roy Williams immediately afterwards. "They have been fantastic here and they showed it this weekend, and they showed it again today against us."
The teams played back and forth fairly evenly for the opening 10 minutes before the Seminoles started taking control. An 8-1 run midway through the half gave FSU a 29-20 advantage, and by the 12-minute mark, when FSU claimed a 33-24 lead, the 'Noles had made exactly two-thirds of its shots from the field (14 of 21).
The final minutes of the first half were frantic, as FSU briefly built a commanding 16-point lead (47-31) following back-to-back three-pointers by Michael Snaer and Deividas Dulkys before the Tar Heels rallied with seven straight points to pull within 47-38.
Trailing 49-40 at halftime, UNC continued to allow Florida State to score at will early in the second half, as the Seminoles built its lead back up.
FSU led 60-46 after the team's 10th three-pointer of the game, but Tar Heel freshman P.J. Hairston nailed a pair of three-pointers in succession to pull UNC back within eight at the 13:12 mark.
Hairston's third three-pointer in a row pulled the Tar Heels within seven (66-59) at the 11:10 mark. Hairston's 13 points are the most he's scored all season against an ACC opponent, and it's even more remarkable considering he didn't score in the first half.
Despite Florida State's torrid shooting for most of the game Carolina continued whittling down FSU's lead down the stretch, pulling within 81-77 with two and a half minutes to play, and pulling within one after Kendall Marshall's double-pump three-pointer with 30.1 seconds left.
Carolina would remarkably get two chances to either win the game or send it into overtime in the closing seconds, but the Tar Heels were unable to get their final shots to fall.
The win propelled Florida State to its first-ever ACC Tournament championship in over two decades of league membership, while the Tar Heels fell short of winning the school's first ACC Tournament crown since 2008.
"We kept trying to pry the door open and they (FSU) kept closing the door," said Coach Williams. "They made shots down the stretch. They made free throws, they made three-point plays, they did what they had to do to stop somebody from coming back and stealing a win from them, and you've got to congratulate them."
Along with shooting the lights out for much of the game, FSU held UNC to 39.4 percent shooting from the field.
It was primarily UNC's decisive 21 made free throws, compared to eight for Florida State, that ultimately gave the Tar Heels a chance in the final seconds.
"I think Florida State did a great job," added senior Tyler Zeller, who scored an uncharacteristically-low nine points in his last ACC Tournament game. "Their team defense is extremely strong. When I did catch it, there were two people on me immediately, so I didn't have a lot of time to create or see what is going to happen. That goes make it tough. They did a fantastic job at it, and you have to give them credit."
Of course it's not all gloom and doom for the Tar Heels, as they now make preparations to head to Greensboro for next weekend's opening-round games in the Midwest Regional as the No. 1 seed.
They'll have some critical time this coming week to get ACC Defensive Player of the Year John Henson back up to speed and ready for the run towards the school's third national championship in the last seven seasons.
Carolina showed tremendous guts and heart for much of the weekend playing without John Henson, and youngsters such as Hairston, Desmond Hubert, and James Michael McAdoo were able to get key minutes and make important contributions.
"I really like the way my team came back and fought," said Williams. "I like the toughness that we showed. We didn't get off to a good start. We didn't play well in the first half. We didn't play well in the first part of the second half. The last 12 minutes, it was the North Carolina team that I have seen recently, and it is the North Carolina team that I like and we want to be. But the biggest thing you have to do is congratulate Florida State."
Tar Heel Illustrated will be with the Tar Heels every step of the way throughout the NCAA Tournament.