From Comcast SportsNetBLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) -- Cody Zeller and his teammates sent a message to the rest of college basketball Tuesday night.America's No. 1 team really is America's best team.Zeller finished with 20 points and eight rebounds, and Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey both added 19 points, leading the top-ranked Hoosiers to a stunning 83-59 rout of No. 14 North Carolina in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge."I know people criticize us for our defense, and they say If they can't play defense, how good can they really be?'" Oladipo said.North Carolina (5-2) found out the Hoosiers can play defense and when they do, they're pretty darn good.The Tar Heels opened the second half going 1 of 20 from the field and got their only basket on a tip-in that may have been deflected off the hand of an Indiana player.And offensively, the Hoosiers were their usual balanced selves.Zeller was 8 of 13 from the field with four blocks, one steal and an assist. Oladipo and Sheehey were both 8 of 12 from the field. Senior guard Jordan Hulls was 5 of 8, including three 3-pointers, and finished with 13 points, eight assists and two steals.The dominant performance might even silence some of the murmurs No. 2 Duke was closing the gap with Indiana (7-0), murmurs the Hoosiers were aware of when they took the court Tuesday night."It was a huge statement," Sheehey said. "We prepared for this game for a couple of weeks now. You saw the score, we played hard, we played well, we played together and when we do that, we play well."The best thing about this game for North Carolina may be the end of its run against teams from the Hoosier State.A week ago, North Carolina trailed by 29 points in the second half before falling 82-71 to two-time national runner-up Butler.On Tuesday, it was almost an instant replay.Indiana closed the first half fast, started the second half fast and spent the rest of the game pulling away. The Hoosiers took biggest lead of the night, 83-51, with 4:22 to play.Dexter Strickland led the Tar Heels with 14 points, Marcus Paige had 11 and James Michael McAdoo had 10 points and nine rebounds for North Carolina, who was missing sophomore guard P.J. Hairston, who stayed home with a sprained left knee.There was a bigger problem, though. North Carolina couldn't figure out how to contain Zeller, one of this season's favorites to be the national player of the year."Boy, I would love to watch them play if it wasn't against my team," Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. "You look down the lineup and Cody Zeller, he's family to begin with, he's really a load to handle, and two other guys that I didn't even hear of when they were in high school, they just kicked our rear ends."The game pitting two of the country's most storied programs -- which have combined for 10 national titles and 3,767 wins -- had been billed as one of this season's showcase events. For 16 minutes, it lived up to the hype.Zeller changed everything with two flurries.By setting high picks and drawing post players outside, it opened up the lanes for his cutting and slashing teammates who wasted no time exploiting the holes in the Carolina defense.Sheehey broke the tie with a layup. Oladipo drew a foul and made two free throws. Zeller beat the Tar Heels down the court on a fast break, and then Zeller closed the 15-6 run by grabbing Yogi Ferrell's errant layup and nimbly tossing it into the basket with less than 1 second on the clock. That gave Indiana a 46-37 halftime lead.The Hoosiers were only getting started."If you let them dictate and control the pace of the game, they're going to win," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "So we had to control and dictate the pace of the game, and to do that, we had to run."But in the second half, the Hoosiers were out to prove something else -- that they could defend.Over the first 8 minutes, North Carolina managed only three points, the tip-in and a free throw.Zeller and Oladipo, meanwhile, combined for seven points in the opening 13-0 blitz that put Indiana ahead 59-37, and North Carolina never challenged again as the Hoosiers won their 34th consecutive home game in November against a team that was supposed to give it all kinds of trouble."It's cool," Oladipo said when asked about the margin of victory over a program like North Carolina. "I mean, we've been working really hard and you guys know as well as I know that this program over the last couple of years was really struggling and we wanted to get it back on top. So to get a win like that, it's a humbling experience."
The entire concept of Tuukka Rask getting pushed by one of his backups is based on the backup consistently performing at a high standard, and that wasn’t the case for Anton Khudobin over the weekend.
Just as it isn’t solely the fault of Rask when the Bruins lose, it wasn’t solely the fault of Khudobin that Boston squandered leads of 3-0 and 4-1 in an overtime loss to Buffalo on Saturday night. But Khudobin couldn’t step up and carry the B's when they clearly started losing their edge in the second half of the game, and that inconsistency will certainly make the Bruins pine for a sooner-rather-than-later return of a concussed Rask.
“Erratic,” said coach Bruce Cassidy when asked to describe Khudobin postgame. “He battles. We love that about him. He battled to the end. He certainly made his share of saves. We need to be better in front of him. But there were times that, there were fires that needed to be put out that shouldn’t have been necessary. But that happens sometimes.”
It was certainly too much to expect Khudobin to be perfect, but they just needed him to be good enough to pull them through while they were getting waylaid in the second half of the game. That proved to be a major challenge, given the players the Bruins are missing and the extremely rough night suffered by Torey Krug (minus-3 on Saturday night, and minus-8 for the season). Khudobin finished with 37 stops as a defense corps without Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller wilted in the third period and the overtime, but he couldn’t make the clean saves for whistles when the team really needed them. Case in point was a Rasmus Ristolainen tester in overtime while the Bruins were in the midst of being outshot by a 6-0 margin in the extra session. Khudobin got a glove on it but couldn’t cleanly catch it for a badly needed stoppage in play at a time when Krug, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand had been caught on the ice for over two minutes.
"The start was great, and the game was great until we scored the fourth goal, and I think after that, we thought it was an easy game,” said Khudobin. “[The high volume of shots] wasn’t that much difficult, I like shots, like probably every other goalie, but they were crashing the net. They were going hard. There were a lot of deflections, a lot of rebounds, a lot of scrums in front of the net, which were . . .that’s the dangerous part, not just the shots.”
Khudobin, 31, has taken five of a possible six points in the games he's played this season and is off to a solid start with a 2-0-1 record, a 2.98 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage. He looks like he’s going to be a perfectly fine backup, enabling the Bruins to hold Rask to the 55-60 games they’ve forecasted for his peak performance this season.
But Saturday night was a major blow to any hopes that Rask would be pushed competitively by his backup, and that a Khudobin hot streak could spark a slow-starting, and now injured, Rask when he does return.
Instead the Bruins are left to hope they can survive while missing Rask along with a number of other key players, and that the goalie returns sooner than later to a team that can’t survive too many morale-crushing defeats like the choke job against the lowly Sabres.
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FOXBORO -- Over the Patriots’ 17-year run of excellence, the inevitability of improvement has been a constant.
No matter what’s messed up, no matter how bad it looks, the Patriots will -- almost without exception -- figure it out. There are myriad reasons for that and one of them is that they have the ultimate weapon in quarterback Tom Brady, but he isn’t the bottom-line answer to all of it. The common denominator to why they get better is trust. They buy in. The "Do Your Job” stuff gets co-opted and thrown on T-shirts and beer coozies to the point where it gets trite and worn, but the core belief that the answers they seek are attainable by the players in the room if they do what they’re asked never wavers.
They don’t ever get to a point where they wonder who they are.
PATRIOTS 23, FALCONS 7
- Pats' block-the-field-goal practice finally pays off
- Defense steps up in 'gotta have it' situations
- Butler: Defense 'just playing smarter and better'
- Jones: Falcons' comeback attempt was fogged in
- Curran's Preview/Review
- Perry: Five quick thoughts
- Curran: Best and Worst
- Felger: Falcons seemed 'desparate' and 'panicked'
The flip side of this is that -- over the same 17-year run -- the Patriots have a tendency to wreck teams.
Hours before the Patriots dismantled the already reeling Falcons, the Seattle Seahawks -- a 10-win team in each of the past two seasons since losing to the Patriots in Super Bowl 49 -- had a sideline dustup where Doug Baldwin, one of their best players and leaders, shoved offensive-line coach Tom Cable. It’s standard fare out there with an immensely talented team that routinely allows itself to devolve into a screaming, finger-pointing mess of men who all seem to believe they know what’s best and that the guy in charge doesn’t know better than they do. And they have Super Bowl 49 to thank for that.
And the same loss of identity seems to be underway in Atlanta, where the Falcons are melting from the head down in the wake of their Super Bowl 51 loss to the Patriots.
Sunday night, in the Super Bowl rematch between two teams that entered the night trying to gain a toehold, New England’s upward climb began. The Falcons, meanwhile, slipped even further from the team that had the Patriots in a chokehold in the third quarter of the Super Bowl but allowed New England to wriggle free and ruin the Falcons' psyche and confidence for the foreseeable future.
After the game, Falcons coach Dan Quinn was saying things like, "Believe in the team, like crazy. We’ve got work to do to get to our standard of ball. And we will work like crazy to do that.”
Bill Belichick, meanwhile, opened his remarks by lauding his team’s preparation.
"I'm really proud of our football team tonight,” said Belichick. "That includes everybody; guys on the practice squad, some of the guys that were inactive and of course all of the players that played and our coaching staff. I just thought they really worked hard this week. We had a very, very productive week. I thought the players were well prepared, ready to go and played hard for 60 minutes in all three phases of the game. We had a lot of contributions from everybody. We played good complementary football. It wasn’t always perfect but we played hard and we competed for 60 minutes and that was off of a real good week of work. Hats off to them. The players did a great job. They went out and played as competitively as they could and tried to play a smart game, made the adjustments, some of the adjustments that they needed to make to some things that Atlanta was doing, some looks that they gave us. [It was] a really good job by our football team tonight. I’m proud of what they did.”
There’s a saying in golf about the key to improvement: The secret is in the dirt. It means that the key isn’t talking about it or thinking about it or watching video, it’s in doing. Over and over again until it’s right and repeatable.
Through the first six games there were myriad issues the Patriots faced on both sides of the ball. Tom Brady was routinely getting bludgeoned and the Patriots' running game was inconsistent.
Sunday night -- even though Brady got banged around some -- there was further improvement and Brady consistently had room to step up and operate. The Pats were so effective on the ground (162 yards on 36 carries) that Brady threw just 29 passes -- the first time this season he’s attempted fewer than 35 and just the fifth time since the start of 2014 he’s thrown fewer than 30 in a regular-season game.
The Patriots couldn’t get control of games and couldn’t get off the field on third down earlier this year. Sunday night, they built a 17-0 lead and the Falcons were 0-for-5 on third down before halftime and 3-for-12 on third and fourth down in the game.
The Patriots consistently had secondary busts and were cutting receivers loose left and right. Six straight quarterbacks of mixed abilities had thrown for more than 300 yards against them. Sunday night there were no obvious breakdowns and Matt Ryan, the defending league MVP, threw for 233.
The Patriots had some bouts of bad tackling and front-seven play. Sunday night, they allowed 120 rushing yards and 37 of those came on Ryan scrambles.
Is everything fixed always and forever? Hardly. But to put this kind of performance together without cornerbacks Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore and linebacker Elandon Roberts -- all players who were at or near the top of the depth chart -- was remarkable. Especially against a team with the physical talent and resume of 2016 success Atlanta has.
"I thought we executed our game plan perfectly tonight,” said safety Devin McCourty. "Our coaches have been on us about just make a team make a play to beat us. You know, Julio Jones catch in the end zone, [Mohamed] Sanu’s catch on the 1-yard line -- like, those are great catches. I thought we competed and made them earn every yard. When you go against good teams, that’s what you have to do. We made enough plays. We played really well on third down, which we talked about always helps us when we play well on third down. And then tonight happened to be where we had to play plays on fourth down, and I thought we handled that well. That’s always a little different. It was just, overall, everyone understanding game plan and play-in, play-out, 11 guys on the same page.”
Getting ahead, which has been a point of emphasis the Patriots haven’t been able to satisfy, was a big part of the success, said Belichick.
"We played this game from ahead, that was a switch,” said Belichick. "We hadn’t done a ton of that this year, so that gives you an opportunity to run the ball more. We ran it in the fourth quarter which is another time where you can pile up some runs if you can make first downs. We weren’t able to do that against Tampa. We weren’t able to do it last week against the Jets. We did it tonight, so it was good to get those yards when they knew we were going to run and when we needed to run we got the yards.”
There will be times, too, when the opposition plays right into your hands. Atlanta was hell-bent on getting its mojo back. It wanted to attack. The first time the Falcons rolled the dice on fourth down in the first quarter they lucked out and got nine yards on a fourth-and-seven scramble by Ryan. That drive ended with a blocked field goal.
Near the two-minute warning, set up at the Patriots 48 and trailing 10-0, the Falcons tried it again on fourth-and-six. They threw a low-percentage downfield ball to Mohamed Sanu that missed, and the Patriots took possession and cruised in to make it 17-0. It was a stupid, chest-puffing exercise in bad situational football and it backfired. So, too, was the decision to try a jet sweep on fourth down from the New England 1.
Now the Falcons have that to dwell on. Along with the blown 17-point lead last week against Miami. And the blown 25-point lead in the Super Bowl. The Falcons came into Foxboro and dug themselves deeper.
And the Patriots’ annual climb began.