CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- He jogged down a corridor in the basement of the Time Warner Arena, smiling and repeating to himself, "That's the best game I've ever played in. That's the best game I've ever played in ... "
Harrison Barnes then slapped the hands of a few North Carolina fans and ran into the Tar Heels locker room. Barnes didn't make the key play in North Carolina's 86-83 win over Washington on Sunday -- that distinction belonged to sophomore forward John Henson -- but Barnes has clearly emerged as Carolina's key player in this tournament. The freshman's play against the Huskies was the stuff of an NBA lottery pick, which he certainly would be if he decides to turn pro after the season. He scored 22 points and had two steals late in the game to deliver Carolina to the Sweet 16.
"Harrison always seems to make plays when it matters most," says center Tyler Zeller. "The moment is never too big for him."
How dominating has Barnes, who was the ACC freshman of the year, been in the last two months? He's scored at least 16 points in each of the last nine games -- including a 40-point explosion against Clemson in the ACC tournament -- and he put up 24 against Long Island in Carolina's 107-87 win on Friday.
It's no coincidence that Barnes' ascendance began when point guard Larry Drew quit the team in early February. Barnes considered Drew, who left Carolina after he lost his starting job to freshman Kendall Marshall, a close friend. He found out about Drew's decision on the Internet. "I was shocked by what happened," Barnes said. "But we came together as a team and had to figure out what our roles were going to be. It made us closer. And now it feels like we're peaking at just the right time."
It certainly appears that way. On Sunday the Tar Heels rallied from an 11-point first-half deficit to take an 84-83 lead with 7.4 seconds left. That's when the long arms of John Henson took control of the game. Guarding a Washington player trying to inbound the ball underneath the Huskies basket, Henson deflected the pass to teammate to Dexter Strickland, who was quickly fouled. Strickland then made two foul shots. Game over.
"My arms are always getting in the way of things," said the 6-foot-10 Henson afterward. "Just yesterday I accidently elbowed Kendall [Marshall]. I've always said that this is small person's world. But today having long arms really helped us out."
Yes, they did. And now Carolina moves onto Newark. Make no mistake: This is a dangerous team. The Tar Heels excel at winning close games -- six of their last 12 wins have been by four points or less -- and now they have a proven go-to player in crunch time in Barnes. Even though Carolina is young (five of the six players who get significant minutes are freshmen and sophomores), they are looking more and more like a legitimate national title contender.
"You could say we're youthfully ignorant," says Barnes. "We're too young to be scared. We've been through a lot together this season, and that's just made us stronger. I really like our team."
As Barnes spoke in the locker room in Charlotte, he kept glancing at a big Dry Erase board a few feet away. On it was one word and one number that Carolina coach Roy Williams had scribbled moments earlier: Sweet 16.