TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — North Carolinas physical talents helped the Tar Heels start the season as the top-ranked team in the country. They also made them the preseason favorite to win the national championship. Yet after three losses, its their mental toughness or lack thereof that has UNC players and coaches questioning themselves.
There were mental lapses in the third-ranked Tar Heels defeats against UNLV on Nov. 26, and at Kentucky on Dec. 3. Then came the shocking 90-57 loss at Florida State on Saturday, when UNC had difficulty responding from an early deficit before falling apart in the first nine minutes of the second half.
It definitely comes back to poise, theres no question about that, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. I didnt think our guys laid down. I dont think that it was that. We have to do a better job being more aggressive getting through screens and be more aggressive setting screens ourselves. But it goes back to coaching.
Indeed, the Tar Heels failure to fight through screens allowed Florida State open shots from the perimeter, and the Seminoles especially senior guard Deividas Dulkys, who scored a career-high 32 points took advantage. More than that, though, UNCs players appeared defeated long before the game was over.
The Seminoles began the game on a 9-2 run that forced the Tar Heels to play catch-up for the remainder of the first half. Later, UNC point guard Kendall Marshall said he and his teammates felt fortunate to only be behind by eight at halftime.
Instead of closing the gap, though, the Tar Heels appeared helpless during the first nine minutes of the second half while the Seminoles went on a 30-8 run to blow open the game. During that stretch, UNC appeared to play with little energy and failed to execute either offensively or defensively.
They kicked our tails all over the court, Marshall said.
Several North Carolina players, including Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Dexter Strickland, questioned the Tar Heels mental fortitude in the wake of the worst loss in Williams nine seasons at UNC.
(We) werent mentally focused enough to get it done, Barnes said. We need to be mentally tougher.
The Tar Heels have appeared dominant at times this season especially against lesser competition but they have now lost three consecutive games away from home.
After each of those defeats, they admitted mental mistakes cost them more than anything.
UNC goes back on the road later this week when it travels to play Virginia Tech on Thursday. How the Tar Heels respond from their humbling experience at Florida State could provide an indication of where UNC is headed.
With losses like this, youve got to have a short memory, Strickland said Saturday. This is obviously a wake-up call for us. I dont think weve ever been beat like that.