SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Before his team left for Syracuse on Friday, North Carolina coach Roy Williams spoke of his hope of turning around this season, and said his desire to lead that turnaround is part of what has driven him through some of the most difficult months of his professional life.
Williams’ long season became more difficult on Saturday at the Carrier Dome, where the Tar Heels endured a frustrating, sloppy 57-45 defeat. After a successful start, North Carolina began to fade before halftime, and it trailed by double digits throughout the second half.
By the end, there was no drama; no hope of a comeback. The Tar Heels (10-6, 0-3 ACC) went quietly, and those who filled the Carrier Dome broke out in a chant of “We want Duke” – as if to suggest that beating up on the Blue Devils’ primary rival wasn’t satisfaction enough.
This was a defeat that wasn’t all that unexpected for North Carolina, which traveled north as a definitive underdog. The Tar Heels, who are one of the least productive 3-point shooting teams in the nation, struggled against the zone the way poor-shooting teams often do.
Even so, the defeat further hinted at deeper problems for the Tar Heels, who are now 0-3 in the ACC for the first time since the 1996-97 season – Dean Smith’s final as UNC head coach.
“First time I’ve ever been (0-3), so I don’t have any idea how it feels like,” Williams said. “But I do now.”
After the loss against Miami on Wednesday night, Williams said his players were feeling the stress and pressure that comes amid a losing streak. Undoubtedly, that pressure is now magnified.
“Right now, it’s a tough time in that locker room,” Williams said. “Kids are feeling it. They felt some stress. They’re going to continue to feel that. And you’ve just got to be tough enough to mentally put that stuff aside.”
The Tar Heels’ problems on Saturday weren’t so much mental as they were physical. After a promising start – North Carolina led by six early, and led 15-11 with about 12 minutes to play in the first half – the Tar Heels went cold. They made seven of their first 11 shots, but finished the first half 3 for 15 from the field.
The Orange’s zone had a lot to do with North Carolina’s shooting woes. The Tar Heels found holes in it early, and James Michael McAdoo, the junior forward, scored 10 of UNC’s first 15 points. From there, though, Syracuse limited McAdoo’s touches, and the Tar Heels labored to get the ball in the interior, or anywhere else.
“They did a great job of not letting me get comfortable in the high post,” said McAdoo, who finished with 15 points. “It still felt like I was able to get some good looks and hit Jackson (Simmons) one time. Hit a couple of other guys. But I guess you’ve just got to give it up to them on that.”
Syracuse (16-0, 3-0) took control of the game with a 19-3 run, and led 30-18 with about 3 1/2 minutes to play before halftime. C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant, the Orange’s pair of 6-foot-8 forwards, hurt North Carolina with their offense. Fair finished with a game-high 20 points, and Grant with 12.
They might have hurt the Tar Heels more defensively, and with their size.
“Their two wings are really athletic and big, and they play really high,” North Carolina guard Marcus Paige, who finished with a team-high 17 points, said of Fair and Grant. “So it’s hard to get the ball inside. Once you get inside, they have weak-side shot blockers and guys that hit the boards a lot more aggressively than we did.
“And that’s why they controlled the boards the whole time.”
Fourteen of Paige’s points came in the second half, and he and McAdoo were the only North Carolina players who scored more than four points. Paige, who had missed 22 of his past 27 shots from the field in North Carolina’s past two games, rediscovered his touch in the second half – but that was hardly any consolation.
Before Saturday, the Tar Heels had never lost their first three ACC games under Williams, and they had never scored fewer than 48 points in a game. What North Carolina accomplished at Syracuse, then, set a record in futility. The Tar Heels’ 45 points were their fewest since a 45-44 victory at N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum in 1997.
In the final moments, while the crowd chanted “We want Duke,” the Tar Heels allowed the Orange to run down the clock. Williams and his players walked off the court after another loss and then spoke, again, of things they needed to do to turn around their season.
“We’re running out of time,” Paige said. “We’re 0-3 now in the league. We’ve got to start playing harder and making this mean something so we can right the ship.”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter