CHAPEL HILL — After one particularly painful loss, one of too many he had endured up to that point, North Carolina coach Roy Williams scoffed at the notion that a defeat might help his team – that it could be a learning experience.
Learning experiences, Williams said after a 91-83 loss at N.C. State on Jan. 26, were “for babies.” Still, whether Williams wanted to admit it or not, that loss – in addition to ones against Butler, Indiana, Texas and Miami – helped fortify the Tar Heels.
Entering their ACC tournament quarterfinal Friday night, the Heels believe they are a stronger team than they were in November and December. And one reason is they made it through those difficult early-season experiences and played their best toward the end of the regular season.
At least, UNC had been before a deflating 69-53 loss against Duke on Saturday. How the Tar Heels respond will determine whether their stay in Greensboro is short or long, and whether they have one more run in them.
“I’m happy for our team and what they accomplished, especially after a tough early-season start, getting the third seed (in the tournament),” Williams said earlier this week. “I’m glad we bounced back like that … I am pleased with how they bounced back after some difficult times. That’s what we have to do right now.”
Amid defeats that called into question UNC’s potential and direction, Williams switched lineups after a 26-point loss at Miami on Feb. 9. Williams went to a four-guard starting lineup, with the 6-foot-5 P.J. Hairston at power forward.
UNC’s new look debuted at Duke a few days later. The Tar Heels lost 73-68, but played well and left Cameron Indoor Stadium with renewed confidence and belief. Then they won their next six games, and had their longest winning streak of the season going when Duke returned to the Smith Center on Saturday.
UNC had a chance to prove how far it had come since that dreadful loss at Miami, to prove its six-game winning streak wasn’t just a mirage. What they learned instead, freshman point guard Marcus Paige said, is that they weren’t “invincible” with this new lineup.
The Blue Devils’ 69-53 victory humbled the Heels like some of those early games. In the three-and-a-half minutes it took Duke to race to a 14-0 lead, UNC’s momentum – constructed over three weeks and six victories – had evaporated.
Williams is hoping his team’s confidence hasn’t, though he acknowledges the thought worries him.
“As a coach, you’re always worried about that,” Williams said. “But at the same time, I don’t think it was false confidence. I think we were playing pretty well. So I don’t think that you can let one game crush you and lead to another one and another one and another one.”
UNC had experienced plenty of adversity before Saturday, but it hadn’t experienced much since going small. They had won all six games by at least nine points and weren’t tested late in games, though UNC rebuffed Maryland’s futile rally in the Comcast Center last week.
Because of their success after the first loss at Duke, the most recent one was especially difficult for UNC to endure. It was most reminiscent, perhaps, to losses at Indiana and Texas. UNC started those games poorly and never recovered.
After those losses, the Heels couldn’t explain what went wrong. That wasn’t the case Saturday.
“We know who we are (now),” Hairston said earlier this week. “We know what we did wrong. We know where it went wrong. And we know how to fix it, because we’ve fixed it before. And it’s something that can be fixed, and we can turn it around.”
Earlier, there wasn’t so much belief. The loss in Maui against Butler, which led UNC by 28 points, surprised a team that experienced its first defeat. Indiana and Texas left the Heels with no answers, and it was after the defeat at N.C. State, in late January, when a disgusted Williams dismissed learning experiences.
Yet his team has learned. And those defeats, his players believe now, were beneficial.
“We’re just more mentally tough,” Hairston said. “Because a few months ago, Indiana, Butler and Miami even, at Miami, was sort of like we just kind of gave in (until) the last few minutes of the game.”
The Tar Heels did plenty wrong Saturday against Duke but quitting wasn’t one of them. If anything, UNC might have tried too hard when things started to go wrong.
Down by 14 less than four minutes into the game, UNC appeared to panic. It rushed shots. It forced plays that weren’t there. Williams didn’t meet with his players on Sunday – probably a good thing, he said later – but when he saw them Monday he told them they’d reverted back to how they played during some of their blowout losses.
“Earlier in the season, we didn’t really have an identity as a team,” Paige said earlier this week. “So we had guys trying to do too much at times – especially when other teams would go on runs. But we know who we are. We just got away from that last game.”
It couldn’t have come at a worse time for UNC, in the final regular season game against its most intense rival. Yet maybe it couldn’t have come at a better time, either. The Tar Heels have responded well before, and believe they can again after one of their most disappointing defeats of the season.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter