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BOB RYAN

It's tough to rival matchup

HARTFORD -- On this Sunday afternoon in February we had a break from conference rivalries. Courtesy of CBS, we had North Carolina vs. Connecticut, which means we had ACC vs. Big East and defending national champions vs. would-be successors. Credentials were issued for 22 NBA teams. (Does this mean the eight who didn't send a rep are going to be fined?)

The pro guys came to view the horse flesh, to size up the five? six? seven? NBA prospects for North Carolina and the three? for UConn. It was a so-so game, but scouts aren't much interested in who wins and who loses, unless, of course, they happen to be looking at the old alma mater.

But coaches and fans care at least a little. This was for some bragging rights, which means it was going to be a nice flight home for the Tar Heels of Roy Williams, who asserted themselves in the second half nicely en route to a 77-70 win before a full house of 16,294 at the Hartford Civic Center.

"Needless to say, we feel a heck of a lot better than we did on Wednesday night," Williams said, alluding to the 1-point loss at Duke in which his team had the ball with 18 seconds remaining and failed to get a shot off before the buzzer sounded. "We got the bad taste out of our mouths."

These February nonconference matchups are classic two-edged swords for the coaches involved.

"They take away from your main focus, which is to win your conference," confided Williams. "If it were up to me, I wouldn't play these nonconference games after conference play starts. But this was a good win for us. You've got to have some success other than in front of momma, daddy, and very good friends."

And UConn mentor Jim Calhoun? How does he feel about playing a Carolina between games with Syracuse and Providence? Are these games needless distractions?

"If we had won, I wouldn't feel that way," he decided. "Yeah, I would rather play a league game right now, but this was an opportunity to get our name out there after [last] Monday's win [an impressive 74-66 conquest at Syracuse]. We could have made a statement."

As it was, the only statement Calhoun really felt like making was an endorsement of the Tar Heels as the best team in the land. "They are a really, really good team," he gushed. "A terrific team. They are good enough to win the national championship."

UConn played them well for the first 36 minutes or so, leading by as many as 7 points (24-17) in the first half and leading by 3 points (34-31) at the half before falling behind by 11 (66-55) with 6:54 remaining. But the Huskies had one more push in them, and with 3:18 remaining they were only trailing by 4 points (67-63) and were in possession of the basketball.

But at this point Carolina demonstrated some major big-time polish. Rashad McCants shot free for a back-door dunk. Freshman Marvin Williams came up with two killer hoops, the first a tip-in and the second a clock-beating jumper. A pair of free throws by Raymond Felton (16 points, 10 assists, and just 2 turnovers in 34 minutes) made it an 8-0 run and that was that.

UConn was left to ponder the reality of 22 turnovers that had led to 22 Carolina points.

"The game was decided their way because we were not mentally tough enough to stay within our offense when they pressured us," Calhoun explained. "We had some horrendous passes that led to fast breaks for them. We lacked mental toughness. I told our team [Carolina was] the best team in the country and they had taken it away from us with those 22 turnovers. And so many of our turnovers were needless. As a matter of fact, on many of them even if the guy had caught the ball, he wouldn't have been able to do anything with it, anyway."

The Huskies are playing without leading scorer Rashad Anderson, who is in a Hartford hospital fighting what is described as "a skin abscess in the inner thigh area of his right leg." Anderson is a major long-range threat, as anyone who watched last year's UConn march to the national championship could testify.

"We realize we played them without him," Williams acknowledged, "and we feel very fortunate."

That said, there were just too many areas of UNC dominance to lay this one on the absence of Anderson. Among other things, you had the 22 UConn turnovers and you had the second-half omnipresence of Felton, who had come here seeking to make amends after taking the brunt of the national criticism for not getting his team a shot at the end of the Duke game.

UConn sophomore Marcus Williams (a career-high 18 points, 5 assists) outplayed the ballyhooed Felton in the first half, but the Tar Heel floor leader took over the game in the second half, when he had 14 of his 16 points and seven of his 10 assists while Williams was coughing it up six times. "Felton puts pressure on you all the time," Calhoun said with a sigh. "If he's not shooting the ball, he's pushing it and getting them into their offense quickly. Felton is as good a point guard as I've seen. I'd love to be able to play like that, but right now we can't."

Felton is also a major part of a smothering Carolina defense. "They get up on you, take you out of your offense and force you to make a play," Calhoun said. "Generally speaking, over the years, we've had kids who can go around you and make plays. We don't have that right now."

There's more. While Husky sophomore Josh Boone (16 points, 11 rebounds) had a good second half, the best big man on the floor was Carolina's Sean May, a 6-foot-8-inch, 260-pound junior whose 16 points and 13 rebounds do not convey the full impact he had on the game. The flip side of May's aggressive play was the passive performance of UConn's Charlie Villanueva, the 6-10 trick-or-treat forward who followed up a notable performance against Syracuse (21 points, 10 rebounds) with a colossal no-show yesterday (1-for-6, seven rebounds). "Charlie was lousy," summarized his mentor.

Coming out of prep school two years ago, Villanueva was making the goo-goo eyes at the NBA. After watching this dreadful performance, the only four letters on the brain of the pro scouts and GMs (Kiki Vandweghe and John Paxson, to name two) were these: N, B, D, and L. Simply put, Villanueva has yet to develop a discernible game.

OK, so now these two ships have passed in the night. Carolina goes home to play Virginia on Wednesday. UConn journeys to Providence tomorrow night. By Thursday, It will be as if this never happened. But it got a lot of us out of the house on a lazy February Sunday afternoon, and there's something to be said for that, I suppose.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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