Despite its worst offensive performance of the season and despite its inability to generate consistent opportunities for its post players and despite its failure to limit Louisville’s second-chance opportunities – despite all of it – North Carolina still had hope and a chance on Monday night.
All the Tar Heels had to do during the final 25 seconds, trailing by four points, was make a shot – any shot. And instead UNC missed three consecutive shots, all on the same possession, during the final moments of a 71-65 defeat at No. 19 Louisville.
So was the story of the game for the Tar Heels on Monday night amid an enthusiastic, energetic environment at the KFC Yum! Center: They simply couldn’t make anything when they most needed to – not in the first half when they tried to establish momentum and not late, either, with time running out.
“We never could get the ball to go in the basket for us,” UNC coach Roy Williams said afterward in what was perhaps something of an understatement, given his team shot a season-low 34.5 percent.
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All Williams could do early on, and late, was watch his players miss attempt after attempt. They often faltered against Louisville’s matchup zone defense, which was unlike any the Tar Heels had seen this season, and even when UNC (19-3, 8-1) worked to find good shots, it still had difficulty making them.
The Tar Heels missed 10 of their final 12 attempts, including their final five of the game. Most of the misses came on layups or tip-ins gone awry.
“It stinks,” Justin Jackson, UNC’s sophomore forward, said afterward – the words representative of his team’s frustration. “But it was one of those games for us. You know, we had so many balls that we were tipping around the rim, and so many rebounds that we would go up for, and then they would come and get it. So some of that is just going up stronger and getting the ball.”
Williams didn’t like that aspect of the game – that Louisville seemed at times to be the tougher team, the one that imposed its will. But that wasn’t the primary reason why the Tar Heels’ 12-game winning streak ended and why UNC lost for the first time since Dec. 12 at Texas.
The primary reason for the defeat was this: UNC never discovered its rhythm offensively, and the Tar Heels struggled as they hadn’t all season to generate shot attempts inside.
Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, the team’s two starters in the post, combined to attempt 10 shots from the field. That was their fewest of the season in a game in which they’ve played together.
Louisville (18-4, 7-2) has been one of the best defensive teams in the country, and Cardinals coach Rick Pitino customized his strategy especially for the Tar Heels. Johnson, the UNC’s leading scorer, didn’t know how exactly to describe what Louisville did defensively.
“It kind of looked like a zone, but it wasn’t,” he said. “There was so much clutter in there, we really couldn’t do anything about that and get it in there. It was very difficult to get it in there and play against that zone today.”
Williams said Saturday after a victory against Boston College that his team would find it difficult to win at Louisville if it played like it had during a recent stretch of victories that left him wanting more – and left his players waiting for various shooting slumps to end. And Williams was right.
The Tar Heels were good enough to win without their best against the likes of Virginia Tech and Wake Forest and N.C. State. But that wasn’t the case against Louisville, which was coming off of a difficult and one-sided defeat against Virginia on Saturday. Pitino challenged his players to respond.
And he challenged them to limit UNC in transition, which was another decisive factor. The Tar Heels are at their best when they are running in transition, when they’re creating easy scoring chances at the basket after a steal or a long rebound.
By halftime, though, UNC had more turnovers (nine) than made shots (seven), and it had no fast-break points at all. The Tar Heels finished with six – far fewer than Williams expects.
“We were brilliant with transition defense,” Pitino said. “We did a famous job of making sure that we got in the paint.”
Indeed nothing came easily for UNC, even when it should have been – like when it had open looks a few feet away from the basket. Everyone seemed to miss close shots – from Johnson and Meeks to Jackson to guards Marcus Paige and Joel Berry.
“I know Joel had a couple of nice drives (and) couldn’t quite finish,” Paige said. “I had three or four drives where I hit the rim that I didn’t finish, and then our bigs also had a couple that they usually do that we just didn’t get to go down.”
And yet, still, UNC had a shot. The Tar Heels appeared headed for defeat after Damion Lee, who led Louisville with 24 points, made a couple of 3-pointers that turned the momentum in the Cardinals’ favor and gave them a five-point lead with 9 ½ minutes to play.
The Cardinals extended the lead to seven points with seven minutes left, and they led by eight with 4 ½ minutes to play. UNC, led by Jackson’s 16 points, came back. After a couple of Berry free throws, it trailed by two points with 35 seconds remaining and needed a stop and some makes.
The Tar Heels found neither, and instead found more frustration in a game filled with it for UNC.
“We didn’t get it done,” Jackson said.