The day before Roy Williams spoke in ominous tones about “a different animal” and about a fierce challenge, his team's most difficult during this long opening month of the season. He spoke of the kind of loud, raucous environment the Tar Heels encountered here on Wednesday night at Indiana's Assembly Hall.
Williams remembered not long ago that the last time UNC had traveled here, in 2012, it lost by “4,000 points” – a 24-point victory that, to Williams and his players, might have seemed that lopsided. This one on Wednesday night began in similar fashion before UNC's too-little, too-late rally ended in an 76-67 defeat.
The loss was UNC's first of the season. It puts an end, at least temporarily, to the talk that these Tar Heels might be superior to last year's version, the ones who played on the final night of the season and came within five seconds of going into overtime in the national championship game.
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Williams' team had been dominant throughout its first seven games. It had won all of them by at least 15 points. Last week at the Maui Invitational, the Tar Heels won all three of their games by an average of 30 points, giving rise to the thought that, perhaps, they'd already answered in the affirmative the most important questions that surrounded them before the start of the season.
Not so fast, though. Playing in the most difficult environment it has encountered during this first month, the Tar Heels looked lost throughout most of the first 10 minutes on Wednesday night – a stretch in which it fell behind by 17 points and never recovered, try as they might.
And they did try, at least. For Williams, that might've have been the most positive takeaway. This wasn't like 2012, when UNC stumbled early, never mustered even a hint of a comeback and lost quietly. This was, instead, a four-point game with about five minutes remaining.
And then, all of a sudden, it wasn't. No. 13 Indiana regained control, just like that.
If there was one sequence indicative of the Tar Heels' woes during the second half, it might have been this: they had a chance with about 8 ½ minutes remaining to cut their deficit to seven. Isaiah Hicks, though, missed badly on a wild attempt not too far from the basket.
And then, moments later, the 6-foot-9 Indiana forward OG Anunoby made a 3-pointer on the other end to push the Hoosiers' lead back to 12. To that point, that was the story of the half for the Tar Heels: hang around, cut Indiana's lead to eight – or nine, then – before the Hoosiers extended it.
Five times during the first 10 minutes of the half, UNC cut Indiana's lead to eight points and came no closer. Then came the sixth time.
With a little less than six minutes remaining, Tony Bradley, the freshman forward, dunked in transition. Once again the Tar Heels had cut the Hoosiers lead to eight. After the Hoosiers missed a free throw on the other end, Kenny Williams' three-point play, on a layup and free throw, cut Indiana's lead to six.
And then it was a four-point lead, 61-57, when Joel Berry, the junior guard, bounced a running layup high off the glass with a little less than five minutes remaining.
It was, it turned out, fool's gold for UNC, which scored all of four points during the next four minutes. Three of those came on a Justin Jackson 3-pointer with 3 ½ minutes to play – a shot that, like Berry's before it, cut the Hoosiers' lead to five.
From there, though, Indiana closed the game on a 10-3 run. During he first 8 ½ minutes, no UNC player other than Jackson made a shot from the field. The Tar Heels committed four turnovers during those first 8 ½ minutes, and at times they appeared lost offensively, what with Indiana's double-teams down low and its pressure on the perimeter.
When Indiana went up 26-9 on James Blackmon's 3-pointer with about 11 minutes to play before halftime, the sold-out crowd here at Assembly Hall stood and roared with so much fervor that the building felt as it was shaking. There were moments like that on Wednesday night.
Another came with about 4 ½ minutes remaining in the first half. The Tar Heels by then had started to fight back after trailing by 17. They'd managed to quell Indiana's initial onslaught, and UNC, which shot a had cut the Hoosier's lead to single-digits.
Not long after, though, came a Tar Heels turnover – on Roger Johnson's steal – that began a fast sequence that ended in OG Anunoby's alley-oop. His dunk came from Josh Newkirk's pass, and that pass came from not far from beyond half court.
The play re-energized the crowd. It became deafening again, and Indiana rode the momentum into halftime, when it led 41-29.
The Tar Heels, led by Jackson's 21, chipped away and hung around. They attempted to rally, but the damage had been done.