Finally surging, Harrison Barnes keeps coming up clutch for UNC

Maybe Harrison Barnes needed to struggle like he did early in the season to be able to play like this when it counts.

As the first freshman to ever be named a preseason AP All-American, it almost seemed like North Carolina's 6-foot-8 swingman was destined to not live up to the hype.

The last time The Dagger checked in on Barnes, it was after he downed a clutch game-winner at Miami in a 74-71 win on Jan. 26. Between then and right now, Barnes has quietly played his best ball of the season, seemingly thriving now that the national spotlight/heat lamp is no longer directly over him.

His latest exploits included another clinching 3-pointer from atop the key to finish off an 18-point performance in a 72-70 win at Florida State on Wednesday night.

Down by one with less than 10 seconds to play, the Tar Heels ran a clear-out for Barnes up top about 30 feet from the backer. The frosh slowly moved in with FSU's Michael Snaer back-pedaling, then casually flipped in the shot as he toed up to the line.

It capped off a night where the 13th-ranked Tar Heels looked as mature as they have all season. They were unaffected by a hostile road crowd or a Florida State team looking for the win that would secure its NCAA tourney bid for good (though the close loss hardly hurt the 'Noles).

It also set up what will be an ACC championship game in the regular season finale on Saturday at home against No. 4 Duke. The two rivals will both enter at 13-2 in league play.

Since that Miami game, Barnes registered the first four 20-point games of his collegiate career. In the 10-game stretch, he's averaging 16.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per outing, shooting a strong 45 percent from the floor.

He hasn't carried North Carolina by any means. He's not going to be the National Freshman of the Year. He hasn't really even proven that he's ready to leave after this season for the NBA, which many thought was a foregone conclusion back in October.

But Barnes has become a dependable producer across the board for North Carolina, is proving to be a very strong college basketball player and should be able to play a crucial role for the Tar Heels in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.

Since when was that not enough?

Ryan Greene also covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for the Las Vegas Sun. Read his Rebels coverage and follow him on Twitter.

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