GREENSBORO — This is the word you would not apply to the 2013-14 North Carolina men’s basketball team: Tough.
In the Tar Heels’ 80-75 loss to Pitt on Friday, Panthers’ center Talib Zanna scored 19 points and grabbed 21 rebounds. Ten of the rebounds were offensive. The Tar Heels grabbed 11 offensive rebounds.
Zanna proves that Panthers are, too, active this time of year – albeit basketball Panthers, not free-agent seeking NFL Panthers.
This is the third time the Tar Heels under Roy Williams have failed to make the ACC semifinals. In 2004, they went on to lose in the second round of the NCAA tournament and in 2010 they didn’t win any NCAA tournament games because they played in the NIT.
The Tar Heels never led Friday. Pittsburgh never allowed them to. The Panthers moved the ball aggressively and beautifully, which resulted in good shots. They shot 51.9 percent from the field. They also parlayed their offensive rebounds into 21 points (to six for North Carolina).
The Panthers dominated so thoroughly that the 12 Pittsburgh fans that accompanied them to the Greensboro Coliseum started a “Let’s go Pitt!” chant that, despite their paltry numbers, could be heard.
North Carolina fans filled the gym as if this were a home game. But most of the afternoon those fans had little reason to cheer. With 7:22 remaining the Tar Heels trailed by 20.
Then they went to a press, scrambled, forced turnovers and excited their fans. The Tar Heels pulled within six points, five points, four and three. Three, however, was as close as they could get. Whenever Pitt broke the press, Pitt scored.
North Carolina guard Marcus Paige scored 20 second-half points and 27 for the game. Paige is 6-1, 175 pounds and fearless. It’s wonderful when your toughest player is among your smallest. But unless he can inspire the big men, he won’t be enough.
The Tar Heels have talent. When they go on a run, it’s as if they’re unleashed. But it’s tough to trigger a run when the other team is grabbing all the rebounds.
North Carolina did go on a 12-victory run from late January into March, ending it last Saturday with a 12-point loss at Duke.
“I think in the wins we had we set the tone defensively,” says Paige. “We were really active. We were all over the place in the defensive end. That hasn’t happened recently. I think that’s one of the biggest changes.”
Williams tried to get his players going. He dropped to one knee and folded his arms. He stomped and followed the stomp with the rare and dreaded double-stomp, a stomp so loud you could hear it across the court. When Williams becomes emotional he’s like the mean assistant principal whose office you never want to visit.
His team’s appearance in the ACC tournament was a visit. The Tar Heels were guests. The loss means that instead of making the 50-mile drive back to campus after the ACC championship Sunday, they made it Friday.
Their reward: They’ll be more rested when they play in the NCAA tournament next week.
“But I want to win,” says Williams. “You know, who knows what the crap’s going to happen next week. For me if I have a chance to win I want to win. And my teams have taken me to seven Final Fours, and only one time did we win the conference tournament.”
The Tar Heels are entertaining and effective when they’re running, the ball in Paige’s hands, every possession a full-court sprint. How long will their run last? Not long if they allow an opponent to knock them around the way Pitt did.
“Don’t bury us yet,” Williams says. “We’ve still got some play left.”
Sorensen: 704-358-5119; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @tomsorensen