UNC’s Larry Drew II converted a high-arching shot over Varnado’s out-stretched arms with two seconds left in regulation and ended MSU’s season before a crowd of 9,471 at Humphrey Coliseum.
The Bulldogs ended the year at 24-12, while the Tar Heels (18-16) advanced to the NIT quarterfinals.
“He was coming at me, and I knew he was going to take the shot,” said Varnado. “He made one hell of a layup, and just give credit to him. He made a great layup because I contested it. I did come close to touching it, but he stretched it out and threw it over my head. It was an unbelievable layup by him.”
On his game-winning shot, Drew said he expected Varnado would be waiting. And he knew he needed to get the shot off somehow.
“After that last free throw went in, I told myself it was a do-or-die situation,” said Drew. “I feel like I can get to the paint any time I want to. I got to the paint and I saw Jarvis to my right side. I just wanted to get it up there and give it a chance to go in.”
With 8.9 seconds remaining in the game, MSU’s Barry Stewart tied the game at 74 with a pair of clutch free throws. Choosing not to call timeout, Drew took the ensuing inbounds pass and drove the length of the court. Following his bucket, the Bulldogs’ desperation shot by Phil Turner was well off the mark.
“They made the plays down the stretch you've got to make to win games,” said MSU head coach Rick Stansbury. “That three-point and the last play down the middle, they finished the plays that determine the outcome of the game. We had plenty of opportunities to finish out the game ourselves. We had a couple of turnovers with about three minutes to go.”
In a rare down season for the Tar Heels, on Saturday there was something to smile about.
“It’s been the unluckiest year I’ve ever had in my entire career,” said North Carolina head coach Roy Williams. “I’m not saying this one game evens everything out. But needless to say we felt very fortunate today.”
Trailing 74-72 with 32.3 ticks remaining in the game, the Bulldogs got a second chance to force overtime after Stewart’s shot was blocked on the right baseline. North Carolina missed the front end of a 1-and-1 to set up Stewart’s tying free throws.
“We had a play, and we ran it the most part of the game,” said Stewart. “We cleared somebody out so I could turn down the screen. A lot of times people that guard me try to overplay me so I can’t get a shot. So I turned it down for a drive and ball faked. I went under, and it got blocked.”
Stewart led the Bulldogs with 18 points, while Varnado and Dee Bost each had 14 points. MSU, which made 11 of 29 3-pointers, also got 13 points from Ravern Johnson and nine from Turner off the bench.
Will Graves led North Carolina with 17 points, including four 3-pointers, and John Henson added 12.
In the opening minutes of the game, the Bulldogs came out on fire and led 16-4. However, North Carolina began to impose a presence in the paint and stepped up its defensive efforts as well.
In the first half, the Bulldogs managed just one field goal in seven minutes and eight seconds and trailed 36-33 at halftime.
UNC outscored MSU 42-14 in the paint and held a 41-32 advantage on the backboards.
“We just missed some shots,” said Varnado of the scoring drought. “Like a cold spell, and I credit their defense. They got into us, but we just missed shots. That’s about it.”
In a season full of ups and downs, the Bulldogs suffered their most disappointing stretch over the last six days. After losing to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament title game, the Bulldogs were then left out of the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s been a real tough week,” said Varnado. “But you know, the guys fought hard, and I give them credit for that. We fought hard, but it just wasn’t in our favor today.”
And here on Saturday, the Bulldogs lost their second heart-breaker in six days, and this one ended their season.
“There are not going to be but two teams that don’t have this feeling,” said Stansbury. “The team that wins the national championship and the team that wins the NIT national championship. What I hurt for now is our two seniors (Stewart and Varnado). It’s a sad feeling to walk into that locker room for that last time. It is very obvious they have been very special for us.”