Tar Heels' rally falls short in 80-75 loss to Pittsburgh in ACC tournament

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 14, 2014 

— North Carolina arrived at the ACC tournament searching for the elusive intangibles that carried the Tar Heels through a 12-game winning streak, the ones that rescued them from their worst ACC start in school history. They left Friday with most of their clothes still folded in their bags.

“In my mind, I thought we were going to be in the championship, so I packed for three days,” UNC senior guard Leslie McDonald said after his team’s 80-75 defeat against Pittsburgh. “But now that you’re going home a couple days earlier, it doesn’t feel right.”

The Tar Heels, seeded fourth in the ACC tournament, entered the postseason with “big-time” aspirations, coach Roy Williams said recently, but for the fourth consecutive game, they walked out of a locker room dissatisfied with their effort and its urgency. At times this season, UNC has been able to get away without having those characteristics.

It nearly did again Friday at the Greensboro Coliseum, where the Tar Heels almost erased a 20-point deficit during the final 7 1/2 minutes. Instead, though, UNC (23-9) failed to overcome its poor start, which was among its worst of the season – if not the worst.

Afterward, players sat in front of their lockers and tried to explain a problem they thought they’d already solved. UNC lacked urgency throughout November, December and most of January – before the Tar Heels turned around their season and won 12 consecutive games.

Brice Johnson, the sophomore forward, said he thought he and his teammates were ready. The Tar Heels’ loss at Duke last weekend left them motivated, and searching for their edge, and Johnson said he thought they’d rediscovered it in practice this week.

“Just didn’t show on the court,” he said.

UNC missed its first four shots, and then its first seven. The Tar Heels made one of their first 11 shots, and during one five-minute stretch in the first half, the Panthers, the tournament’s fifth seed, outscored UNC 17-1.

It wasn’t difficult to deconstruct how the Panthers (25-8) took control. They had their way with rebounding – a 43-35 edge overall – and limited UNC to one-shot-and-done possessions. The Panthers outscored the Tar Heels 21-6 on second-chance points.

UNC, which never led, trailed by 18 in the first half before whittling Pitt’s lead to 10 at halftime. Williams and his players might have felt fortunate then after the way they played early.

But, as Williams said later, “They made us play that way. … They had a great sense of urgency.”

The Tar Heels lacked that for long stretches, and they found it only after it was too late. The Panthers, led by 21 points and 19 rebounds from senior center Talib Zanna, controlled the game for the first 32 minutes and they led by 20 with 7 1/2 minutes remaining before UNC began to assert itself.

Still, the Tar Heels made it interesting late. Marcus Paige, UNC’s sophomore guard, scored 14 of his 27 points during the final seven minutes, though he fouled out with 25 seconds left. By then, thanks to Paige, who made four 3-pointers during a span of about five minutes, the Tar Heels had trimmed Pitt’s lead from 20 to four.

“As soon as we started getting a little run going, I thought we were going to win the game,” Paige said. “I know a couple of the guys on the team thought so, too. … We were probably two plays away from really making it interesting.”

UNC during the final several minutes used a full-court press that helped force six turnovers in the final six minutes. Paige kept making shots, most of them 3s, and the Tar Heels kept coming back, their rally injecting life into the partisan crowd at the Greensboro Coliseum.

After Paige fouled out – one of four players to foul out, including Zanna – UNC cut Pitt’s lead to three with 12 seconds left. That was as close as the Tar Heels came, and they walked off the court with what James Michael McAdoo described as a “teaching moment.”

“If this was the NCAA tournament and we play like that, we could go home and our season’s over,” said McAdoo, who finished with 15 points and seven rebounds. “I think that’s the biggest thing. … I just think we necessarily didn’t really show up ready to play. I don’t think that’s any reflection of how we prepared for the tournament.”

The Tar Heels, who lost in the ACC tournament championship game in each of the past two seasons, failed to win a tournament game for the first time since 2010. They will now bring a two-game losing streak into the NCAA tournament – their first losing streak since they were mired in that 1-4 start to begin conference play.

UNC recovered from that poor start in conference play, and nearly recovered from another one on Friday. Instead, though, the Tar Heels left Greensboro, and the ACC tournament, still searching for what they had during that 12-game winning streak.


Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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