Belmont stuns No. 12 North Carolina 83-80

acarter@newsandobserver.comNovember 17, 2013 

— Roy Williams walked into the North Carolina locker room after one of the most stunning defeats of his tenure and he apologized. He told his players he was sorry.

He felt he hadn’t prepared them well enough for their final possession in the final seconds of a shocking 83-80 defeat against Belmont, which trailed by eight points with about 21/2minutes to play before completing a dramatic comeback with five points in the final 14 seconds.

“I apologized to them,” Williams said. “I told them it was my fault. And (I) said we did make some mistakes. You need to get shots, you need to not get turnovers down the stretch. You need to make free throws down the stretch.”

The players heard Williams’ apology but not all found it necessary. Many blamed themselves. Sophomore guard Marcus Paige said it was his fault. Three of his five turnovers came in the final two minutes. Sophomore forward J.P. Tokoto said it was his fault. He missed 12 of his 16 free throws.

Perhaps sophomore forward Brice Johnson best summarized the players’ reaction to Williams’ apology.

“It’s not his fault,” said Johnson, who scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half. “It’s our fault. We didn’t play. We didn’t play in the first half. We could have done a lot better in the first half.

“And we could have knocked down some free throws, (and) it would have really changed the game.”

By the time the final buzzer sounded and a crowd of more than 15,000 sat in silence – except for a small contingent of Belmont supporters who celebrated one of the greatest victories in school history – there was plenty of blame to go around. In a game with no shortage of mistakes, UNC made two critical ones in the final 15 seconds.

First, the Tar Heels allowed Belmont senior guard J.J. Mann an open 3-pointer near the top of the key. Mann, who finished with a game-high 28 points, made the shot with 14 seconds to play, and it gave the Bruins an 81-80 lead.

“It wasn’t even necessarily a screen,” Paige said of Mann’s shot, which he released over Tokoto. “Just towards the end, we had been switching everything. That’s what got us back in the game.

“And then they started going to these little dribble hand-offs, which were a little harder to switch, because you don’t know if your guy is going to fake the handoff or not.”

After Mann’s shot went in, Williams elected not to call a timeout. That has been his long-standing philosophy in those kinds of circumstances – trailing by a point with more than 7 seconds to play. Williams hoped UNC could execute a play before Belmont had set its defense.

Instead, though, the Tar Heels appeared to panic. Johnson wanted to call a timeout. Paige, meanwhile, wanted to push the pace. He said there was “confusion.” The possession ended when Tokoto rushed an off-balance shot near the baseline.

“We haven’t really worked on that very much,” said Paige, referring to UNC’s limited practice of similar end-of-game situations. “It was kind of new, and in the heat of the moment you kind of forget things like that.”

After Tokoto’s miss, Belmont’s Caleb Chowbay made a breakaway layup just before time expired. And then it was over – UNC’s second nonconference home loss in Williams’ tenure, and its first since losing against Illinois here in 2006.

In defeat, the final 15 seconds became magnified for UNC. The Tar Heels, though, made it difficult on themselves nearly from the start. They trailed by seven points at halftime and by as many as 11 points in the second half before holding the Bruins scoreless for about six minutes.

UNC during that stretch outscored Belmont 14-0, which was part of a greater 22-5 run that gave the Tar Heels a 73-65 lead with less than four minutes to play. Still, though, the Tar Heels continued to miss free throws at an alarming rate. They went 9-for-28 from the line in the first half, and finished 22-for-48 (48.5 percent).

“It was definitely a snowball effect, just seeing them clunk out, or missing them all the way left,” Tokoto said. “That should never happen. It was all mental for me.”

Tokoto wasn’t the only offender. Junior forward James Michael McAdoo, who led UNC with 27 points, made 11 of his 19 free throws. Johnson was 2-for-5. Williams said that in recent practices, his players each shot 200 free throws and that everyone made more than 70 percent.

“The last time we did that, James Michael was 81 percent, J.P. was 84 percent,” Williams said. “But it didn’t go in for us today. It was a big part of the game, there’s no question. But I still let my team down in the end.”

The Tar Heels for the third consecutive game played without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, the team’s most experienced guards. Both are sitting out amid NCAA eligibility concerns. Without their two most proven perimeter shooters, UNC made just two 3-pointers Sunday, while Belmont made 15 of its 37 3-point attempts.

The last of those came from Mann, who scored 11 of his team’s final 13 points, and whose final shot completed a comeback that left the Tar Heels with enough blame to go around.

Observations

• J.P. Tokoto, the sophomore forward who missed 12 of his 16 free-throw attempts on Sunday night, spent time shooting free throws in an empty Smith Center in the hours after the game. Tokoto attributed his free throws woes to a mechanical issue – a failure to keep his elbow in during his release – and a loss of confidence. “That’s pretty much all it was,” he said. “Was mental for me.”

• The Tar Heels generated just two fast break points, and those didn’t come until late in the second half on a Brice Johnson breakaway dunk. Creating scoring opportunities in transition – and on the break – is one of the tenets of Roy Williams’ system, but Belmont limited UNC’s chances. “They did a good job of sending guys back,” UNC guard Marcus Paige said. “Every opportunity we had to fast break, they already had three guys back.”

• UNC struggled throughout the first half to switch on screens, which left Belmont’s shooters open on the perimeter. The Bruins finished with 15 3-pointers. The Tar Heels, though, were at their defensive best in the second half when they effectively switched on screens. That played a large role in UNC’s second-half comeback, when the Tar Heels went from trailing by 11 points to leading by eight. Later in the game, Belmont adjusted and executed more dribble hand-offs on the perimeter. More often than not, that led to open shots, including the go-ahead 3-pointer that J.J. Mann made with 14 seconds to play.

• It’s clear UNC coach Roy Williams is still searching for his best lineup – and substitution pattern – with his short-handed team. The rotation likely would be more fluid with P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, both of whom are sitting out due to eligibility concerns. Said Williams: “We’re struggling a little bit now, trying to find the right lineup at the right time.” Williams would prefer to use a larger lineup without Hairston and McDonald, but Belmont made it difficult for UNC because of its preference to spread the floor with smaller players.

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