KANSAS CITY, Mo. — What saved North Carolinas season also doomed it in the end. The Tar Heels, who had shot so well recently, went cold from the perimeter against one of the best defensive teams in the nation and suffered a season-ending 70-58 defeat against Kansas on Sunday night in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
This is what UNC coach Roy Williams feared when he changed his strategy midseason and began using a four-guard starting lineup. Before making that change, Williams said he didnt want the Tar Heels to be a team that lived by the 3-pointer and died by it.
But the Heels perimeter offense often gave them life during the past six weeks. It extinguished it on Sunday.
It definitely was a nightmare in the second half, theres no question about that, Williams said when asked if this a 30.1 percent shooting performance had represented a nightmare scenario for his team. The change in the lineup, I tried to get the best five basketball players on the court for us. We knew we were giving up some rebounding, but we knew we were adding some things offensively from the perimeter.
The change saved UNCs season. Entering Sunday, the Tar Heels (25-11) had won nine of their past 11 games with the smaller lineup. But at the Sprint Center on Sunday, Kansas (31-5), which leads the nation in field goal percentage defense, limited the Heels on the outside and didnt allow anything on the interior, either.
Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo UNCs top three scorers missed far more than they made, both on the perimeter and inside. They combined for 31 points and made 12 of their 43 field goal attempts.
On the outside, Bullock and Hairston, the Heels two best shooters, made just four of their 13 3-point attempts.
We couldnt make a shot, Hairston said, and our missed shots led to their run-outs and they got some open jump shots and layups in transition. And we would come down and we would just miss shots.
On the inside, meanwhile, McAdoo missed 14 of his 19 attempts from the field. He had difficulty converting open jump shots into points, and even more difficulty trying to score over Jeff Withey, Kansas 7-foot senior center.
Just missed a lot of easy shots, McAdoo said quietly. A lot of open jump shots at the rim. Just wasnt able to finish. Credit that to good defense, I guess.
The Heels missed an abundance of shots during the first half, too, but still held a 30-21 halftime lead despite shooting 26.2 percent, their second-worst percentage in a half this season. As promising as the nine-point halftime lead might have seemed, the Tar Heels failed to capitalize on opportunities to extend it.
They attempted 14 more shots from the field than Kansas during the first half, and forced 12 Jayhawks turnovers. Kansas made just seven of its 28 field goal attempts in the first half, yet still trailed by less than double-digits at halftime.
I was OK with the nine-point lead, Bullock said. In the second half, we just came out dead flat, for like the first six, eight minutes of the (half).
Nine points is three possessions three 3s and youre right back in it. You can do that in two minutes, or a minute and a half.
It took Kansas all of four and a half minutes to tie the game at 35. The Jayhawks took the lead for good on their next possession when Travis Releford, the senior guard who led Kansas with 22 points, tipped in a missed shot.
That was a theme for Kansas during the second half: production from Releford. And points close to the basket.
The Jayhawks made 17 shots from the field during the second half and all of them, outside of five 3-pointers, were layups. After such a dreadful performance in the first half, Kansas executed its offense with ease during the final 20 minutes.
Even though we played miserably the first half, I thought they could have played a lot better, too, Kansas coach Bill Self said. At least we kept ourselves within striking distance.
When things started go badly, though, the Tar Heels failed to stay close.
About four minutes after Kansas took the lead for good, it led by 10, and UNC never again cut its deficit into single digits. The Tar Heels couldnt make outside shots and their backup plan of trying to penetrate failed, too. Withey blocked five shots but altered countless others.
I actually told him that after the game I was like, I couldnt get over you, said Dexter Strickland, the UNC senior guard who finished with nine points and three assists in his final collegiate game. His hands, his arms are just so long, and it was so hard to finish.
Bullock spoke with tears in his eyes about playing for the final time alongside Strickland, and in the moments after their season ended the Tar Heels sat quietly in front of their lockers.
More than a month ago, in the final moments of a loss at Duke, the Heels had endured chants of NIT. Williams in recent weeks had chided those who had abandoned ship on his team, and he said he was proud of how far the Tar Heels had come.
What worried him most, though, came to fruition on Sunday. The Tar Heels died by the 3-pointer, and ended their season for the second consecutive March with a loss in Missouri against Kansas.
Though North Carolinas season came to an end earlier than the Tar Heels hoped, UNC coach Roy Williams and his players expressed satisfaction with a season that featured its share of challenges and disappointments. The Heels suffered lopsided losses against Indiana and Texas in November and December, and began ACC play 0-2.
But the Tar Heels were at their best late in the season. They reached the ACC tournament championship game and after building a nine-point halftime lead against Kansas were 20 minutes away from advancing to the Sweet 16 for the 32nd time in school history.
I really enjoyed coaching my team, Williams said. I really did. We had some tough, tough losses early. They kept coming to practice every single day and tried to do what we wanted them to do.
Kansas 50-36 rebounding advantage represented the largest rebounding disparity for UNC this season. The Tar Heels held their own during the first half, and had just five fewer rebounds than Kansas at halftime. But the Heels hustle eventually was no match for the Jayhawks size.
Kansas frontcourt duo of Jeff Withey and Kevin Young combined for 25 rebounds, eight of them offensive. Withey, the 7-foot senior center, finished with 16 rebounds by himself. And Travis Releford, Kansas senior guard, had eight rebounds.
It was mostly just on us not blocking out and they were getting second-chance shots, especially out in transition, UNC forward James Michael McAdoo said.
The Tar Heels had difficulty maintaining their composure at points during the second half, when Kansas quickly erased its nine-point halftime deficit and then went ahead for good less than six minutes into the second half. Williams had difficulty keeping his cool, too.
At one point, when UNC freshman point guard Marcus Paige lost possession while penetrating the lane, Williams became irate that a foul hadnt been called.
During a timeout with 11 minutes and 36 seconds to play, Williams, who was as animated as hed been this season, received a warning from Michael Greenstein, one of the three officials.
Carter: 919-929-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter