During the span of about one minute on Saturday night, Brice Johnson, the North Carolina senior forward, said the words “do better” six times.
And that came after Johnson said, more than once, that the Tar Heels had to play “a lot better” than they have in consecutive defeats against Louisville and Notre Dame.
“It’s very frustrating,” Johnson said after the 80-76 loss at Notre Dame. “Because we know we can be a lot better.”
UNC’s level of improvement – if there is any – might not matter all that much when it plays at Boston College on Tuesday. The Eagles are perhaps the nation’s worst major-conference team, and they’re among the ACC’s worst teams of the past 15 years, according to statistical analysis at kenpom.com.
It’s the kind of game that the Tar Heels can win without their best effort. Yet that wasn’t the case Feb. 1 at Louisville, where the Tar Heels shot a season-low 34.5 percent, or at Notre Dame, where UNC surrendered a 15-point first-half lead and faded down the stretch.
After both losses, coach Roy Williams questioned his team’s toughness and heart – questioned its desire to make winning plays in critical moments. The Tar Heels failed to do that in both defeats last week. Williams sounded exasperated after the loss at Notre Dame.
“I’ve got a wonderful bunch of kids,” he said. “But we’ve got to decide that we want to compete when it’s tough, not just when it’s easy.”
It was tough during the second half at Louisville. And again in the second half at Notre Dame.
On both occasions, UNC failed to adjust after halftime. At Louisville, the Cardinals’ match-up zone defense flustered UNC, which had difficulty generating the kind of shots it prefers. And when the Tar Heels had good, open looks close to the basket, they often missed them.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, spread out the Tar Heels’ defense and penetrated throughout the second half. The penetration led either to shots close to the basket or open 3-point attempts on the perimeter.
Williams on Saturday night found himself repeating his message from earlier in the week, after the loss at Louisville.
“Same thing,” Joel Berry, the sophomore guard, said of Williams’ postgame message on Saturday. “Loose balls – 50-50 balls, turnovers. In the first half, the reason why we were able to go up was because we were able to secure the rebound and get the ball out fast and beat them down the floor.”
Before these past two defeats, UNC had won 12 consecutive games. The Tar Heels weren’t often tested during that streak, though, and they won the final three of those 12 games despite shooting less than 40 percent from the field.
The shooting woes continued at Louisville, but they weren’t much of a factor in the loss at Notre Dame, where the Tar Heels shot 45.8 percent, and where Marcus Paige, the senior guard, broke out of a prolonged shooting slump.
Paige finished with 21 points and made five of his eight 3-point attempts. The five 3s were as many as he’d made in UNC’s previous five games combined.
Paige’s resurgence was a positive sign for UNC, which isn’t likely to reach its potential without him at his best. And yet it was cause for little celebration afterward given the outcome.
“It doesn’t really matter if he’s making shots and we’re losing,” Johnson said. “We want to be able to win games. … It’s great to see him make shots, but at the same time I still want to win.”
The Tar Heels should be able to do that with little trouble at Boston College. But it’s what follows that is concerning given the way UNC has played lately.
Also concerning: Williams’ search for toughness continues. It’s something he has often brought up the past several seasons, and entering this one, he and the coaching staff posted signs in the team’s locker room and weight room reminding players of their second-half collapses last season.
The one Saturday at Notre Dame wasn’t as dramatic, or sudden, as some that the Tar Heels experienced last year, but it was similar, nonetheless: a defeat that looked for a while like it would be a victory, until UNC unraveled and couldn’t recover.
“It’s all want-to,” Johnson said Saturday when asked if the loss at Notre Dame had less to do with what could be found on a box score and more to do with what could be found within himself and his teammates. “We’ve just got to do better. I mean, I have to do better myself.
“We’ve just all got to do better.”
He kept saying it over and over again, repeating the need “to do better.” It was broad but befitting of a team that is seeking refinement in all areas – those that show up on a box score and those that don’t.