UNC tops ECU 93-87, but it feels like a loss

acarter@newsobserver.comDecember 16, 2012 

— After a win that in some ways felt more like a loss, North Carolina coach Roy Williams entered the interview room in the depths of the Smith Center, sat down and said, “Don’t know where to start.”

Few things about the Tar Heels’ 93-87 victory against East Carolina pleased him. Several things about it bothered him, and he didn’t know where to focus his frustration first.

He had plenty of options: the lack of second-half defense that allowed the Pirates 61 points after halftime. UNC’s failure to put away a game it led by 16 at intermission, and by 15 with about five minutes to play. The fact that not one of his post players grabbed a single offensive rebound.

Williams began there.

“I got more frustrated perhaps today than I have in a long time,” he said. “Looked down at the stat sheet and no post player got an offensive rebound in the entire game.”

That statistic flummoxed Williams so much that when reminded of it later he said, “Again, I’ve never had a game where a post player never got an offensive rebound in the whole game.”

The positive for No. 21 UNC (8-2) on Saturday, aside from winning, was its first-half execution – and accuracy – on offense. The Heels made 16 of their 29 attempts from the field in the first half, but their 42-26 halftime lead appeared to make them complacent.

UNC’s lead ranged from seven to 18 points throughout most of the second half, a comfortable enough margin until ECU guard Akeem Richmond made a pair of 3-pointers on consecutive possessions during the final minute. The second of those cut the Heels’ lead to four points with 27 seconds to play. The Pirates came no closer, but come that close reflected UNC’s breakdowns.

Richmond’s pair of 3-pointers came after a comedy of errors for the Heels, who had led by 11 with 1:10 to play. During the next 43 seconds, UNC committed two turnovers against ECU’s full-court press, missed a free throw and failed to defend Richmond, arguably the Pirates’ most capable player on the perimeter.

Williams described those two turnovers – one by freshman point guard Marcus Paige, the other by senior guard Dexter Strickland – as “silliness.” Williams then criticized his team’s inability to switch off the Pirates’ screens, which allowed ECU (6-2) open shots.

“Right now,” Williams said, “there’s not anything ol’ Roy’s ecstatic about. Let’s put it that way.”

He made that clear enough during a timeout in the second half, amid a particularly mediocre stretch for his team. Williams knelt down on one knee and screamed so loudly that people several rows up, in all directions, could hear the frustration pour out of him.

“I can’t say what he said, because I can’t curse,” Strickland said. “But it motivated us to come out harder when he gets on us like that.”

That, it seems, is what it takes for these Tar Heels to receive Williams’ message. He had a similar outburst during the Heels’ loss against Butler in the Maui Invitational, and had another during an uninspiring victory earlier this month against UAB.

In both of those earlier games, and on Saturday, the Tar Heels responded well after Williams challenged them. Still, their mistakes in the final minutes against ECU left the Heels with a sense of dissatisfaction.

“I don’t feel good,” said P.J. Hairston, who scored 14 of his 18 points during the second half. “I feel like it could have been a lot better. I mean, a win is a win – everyone wants to win. But when you win a certain way … I feel like we could have won this game by at least 15 if we would have played smarter toward the end.”

Not only did UNC not play with intelligence, but it also didn’t play together – at least according to Reggie Bullock, the junior guard who during one stretch of the second half played center when Williams used a smaller lineup. Asked to identify the reason why UNC continues to make similar mistakes game after game, Bullock questioned the Tar Heels’ cohesion.

“I don’t feel like we have everyone all in yet, not worrying about individual stats,” said Bullock, who with 14 points was one of five UNC players who scored in double-figures. “But just worrying about how far this team can go.

“… Like I know this is a big year for me but it’s not about me, it’s about my team succeeding. If our team, succeeds everything will work out for itself.”

The Heels succeeded in the most basic sense on Saturday. They won.

Beyond that, though, Williams and his players found few positives in their performance against the Pirates, who made six 3-pointers and shot 52.9 percent during the second half. Afterward, when he met with reporters, Williams couldn’t immediately find the words to describe his disappointment.

But in the moments after the game he had little trouble articulating his frustration to his players. Williams’ words were still fresh in the mind of James Michael McAdoo, the sophomore forward who led UNC with 19 points. McAdoo repeated what Williams had told the team: “The way we played is unacceptable. And will not be allowed anymore.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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