SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — After watching his team lose to Minnesota on Friday, North Carolina coach Roy Williams insisted he doesnt think about last season anymore.
But now that his Tar Heels have lost two in a row and at 2-2 are off to their worst start since 2001-02, thanks a 72-65 loss to Vanderbilt in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off on Sunday hell likely have to start answering a familiar question from last seasons 17-loss letdown: Whats wrong?
Although No. 8 UNC (which will certainly fall out of the top 10 rankings this week) came back from a 14-point first half deficit, it couldnt close out against the Commodores (3-1). The biggest problems, Williams said, was the inability to grab key defensive rebounds down the stretch, and defensive breakdowns when Vandy forced the Tar Heels to play tight D for long stretches.
But its also obvious, with three new freshmen and zero returning scholarship seniors, that Williams is still looking for the right combinations of players that can play consistent defense, take care of the ball, and score in the clutch.
What Im looking at is five guys who will play together as one, he said after his team committed 22 turnovers and allowed the Commodores to shoot 63.6 percent in the first half. Weve got great kids; you know what theyre saying? Theyre saying Ive got to do this, or Ive got to score. And its not that its weve got to do it. Weve got to make better decisions on how tough were going to be, getting after loose balls, and when teams get second-half opportunities against us.
Trailing 39-29 at halftime, UNC opened the second half with a 12-3 run, cutting its deficit to 42-41 on two Justin Knox free throws. The Tar Heels were more aggressive on both sides of the court compared to the first 20 minutes, taking advantage of Vanderbilts six turnovers and 1-for-5 shooting.
UNC finally took its first second half lead, 48-47, with about 11 minutes left, on sophomore Leslie McDonalds shot in the lane. But with the score knotted 51-51 with 8:13 left, Vanderbilt put together an 8-0 run, taking advantage of three Tar Heel turnovers and making 4 of 6 free throws.
Carolina freshman Reggie Bullock (10 points) halted the onslaught with a 3-pointer to cut his teams deficit to 59-54, then forward Tyler Zeller converted a three-point play to put UNC within a bucket. But it was as close as the Tar Heels got.
With freshmen Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall and Bullock on the floor and starters Larry Drew II, John Henson (6 turnovers, 0 assists, 2-6 from the free throw line, 2 points) and Dexter Strickland (4 turnovers, 1 assist 6 points) on the bench Vanderbilt padded its lead by burying a bunch of free throw and getting a layup by Jeffery Taylor that pushed its lead back to 65-58. Strickland and Drew were among those who checked back in with about two minutes left, but they couldnt muster a comeback, either.
Henson, a starting forward, played only six second-half minutes, and 16 minutes total for the game another example of Williams determination to find the correct combinations.
The way Im going to coach you guys know me, I love getting five guys and playing them all year -- but youve got to deserve to play, Williams said. You cant just go out there and I took Dexter out for a long stretch there -- you cant have 0 assists and six turnovers, you cant have 1 assist, 4 turnovers. You cannot hurt your team, and youve got to play better.
Zeller led the Tar Heels with 20 points and 10 rebounds, while Barnes (0-for-12 in Fridays game) finished with 11 points on 4-for-12 shooting. Jenkins led Vanderbilt with 16 points.
Williams insisted that he is not discouraged with the Tar Heels, who havent had this many losses to open the season since Matt Dohertys team started 2001-02 with three straight losses. And despite the questions that will likely be asked, Williams and his players say their performances dont feel anything like last year.
Were better, Zeller said. Were not where we need to be yet; we cant be, we just lost. But I believe it is better than last year; hopefully it continues to get better and better over the season. But its something weve got to be able to change.
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