- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Harrison Barnes drew attention to himself a year ago when he held multiple schools off with his recruiting decision, ultimately performing a Skype interview with North Carolina’s Roy Williams to announce his choice.
The fanfare for Barnes picked back up when he was chosen as a first-team AP all-American, the first time a freshman was given the nod.
The adulation and hype turned to unnecessary disappointment because Barnes failed to dominate out of the gate. He followed a 19-point game against Hofstra in Puerto Rico with an 0-for-12 outing in a loss to Minnesota.
Barnes wasn’t special the first month of the season. But neither was North Carolina.
Both are now.
Barnes pulled off his most impressive performance yet with a 40-point outing in the Tar Heels’ 92-87 overtime win against Clemson on Saturday in the ACC tournament semifinals at the Greensboro Coliseum.
The Tar Heels once again stumbled in the first half, getting down by 14 points to Clemson. But they clawed back just like they did from 19 down to beat Miami at the buzzer in the ACC quarterfinals Friday.
And while Tyler Zeller once again came up large with a key bucket that tied the game to send it into overtime (he won the Miami game with a layup) and point guard Kendall Marshall led the team once again with his playmaking skills, the difference was Barnes.
Carolina had him. Clemson didn’t have anyone close.
“He’s very analytical,’’ North Carolina coach Roy Williams said of Barnes. “He’s just bigger, faster and stronger. He never lost his focus in every practice. It just took a while to show up in his game.’’
Barnes’ arrival on the national scene occurred with a game-winning 3-pointer to beat Miami on Jan. 26. If he was forgotten prior to that shot, he was certainly no longer an afterthought once he made that bucket.
But his real emergence came two weeks ago when he took and made the 3-pointer to beat Florida State in Tallahassee. The Tar Heels didn’t have the go-to guy a year ago. They weren’t sure who would take the final shot even earlier this season. Barnes doesn’t have to take the shot, because Marshall can create for others like he did to feed Zeller against Miami and then for Zeller to tie Saturday’s game. But no one commands as much respect from Carolina’s roster now as Barnes.
Barnes remains a mellow postgame speaker, saying after the game he never lost his confidence earlier in the season. He’s not someone who flashes an infectious smile too often. He keeps everything very grounded. After the games here the past two days, Barnes has been swarmed by the media. He sits in what the ACC has provided, an enveloping, black leather chair, where he looks like he’s making the rounds of a movie tour.
He has that star quality, but has tempered any arrogance.
“He was waiting to do that,’’ UNC teammate John Henson said of Barnes’ breakout performance. “That’s what he does. It’s exciting to see what he’s going to do [next].’’
Barnes’ 40-point performance was the first in the ACC tournament since Randolph Childress put up 40 for Wake Forest in 1995. The last Tar Heel to score 40 in any game was Tyler Hansbrough five years ago. But something tells me this isn’t Barnes’ last breakout performance of the season.
The Tar Heels are a national-title contender now in a season that has been fluid at the top. They always had the personnel to make a run, even with the dismissal of Will Graves to start the season, the defection of Larry Drew II in the middle of the ACC and the injury to reserve Reggie Bullock.
Hey, if BYU was considered a title contender with Jimmer Fredette leading a relative unknown crew, then why wouldn’t the combination of Zeller, Henson, Marshall and a potential top-three NBA draft pick in Barnes be enough to challenge for the title?
Clemson should have been able to close out the Tar Heels, but Demontez Stitt couldn’t get off a quality shot at the end of regulation. Barnes hit a 3-pointer to cut a five-point Clemson lead to two with 1:22 left. Barnes then scored five of the first eight points in overtime to push the Tar Heels ahead for good.
“I tried to fill what the team needs,’’ Barnes said afterward. “[Saturday] we had a lack of production on the offensive end and I tried to make up for that.’’
He certainly did that.