Stunning. That’s the one word that might best describe North Carolina’s 83-80 loss against Belmont. Stunning result. Stunning collapse for the Tar Heels, who led by eight points with about two and a half minutes to play. Stunning ending.
And now, the look back:
1. Poor free-throw shooting cost the Tar Heels the game.
It’s not often that a game comes down to one play or one particular statistic. It did on Sunday, though. The Tar Heels shot an awful 48.5 percent from the free throw line, and made just 22 of their 48 attempts. In the first half, Belmont shot a better 3-point percentage (7-for-21, 33.3 percent) than UNC did from the free throw line (9-for-28, 32.1 percent). That’s a crazy stat – even crazier given the Bruins didn’t even really shoot 3s all that well, either. We can analyze a lot of things from Sunday but the bottom line is that if UNC shoots even 10 percent better from the line – 58.5 percent, which still wouldn’t have been considered good – it wins.
2. This is UNC’s reality without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald.
I don’t think it’s time to press the proverbial button of panic just yet. Belmont isn’t a bad team. The Bruins might well make the NCAA tournament for the seventh time in the past nine seasons. That said, there’s really no excuse for UNC losing at home to a team like Belmont. Unless, of course, UNC is without its best player, and another player who likely would have started. UNC can’t use the absence of Hairston and McDonald as an excuse. And it’s not. But it is the Tar Heels reality at this point. Without those two, and especially without Hairston, UNC is capable of losing games like this. The Tar Heels ceiling is significantly lower, as is their basement.
3. Given their limitations, the Tar Heels need to execute at an extremely high level.
Some of Roy Williams’ best teams at UNC might have been able to get away with less than optimal effort and execution. Others, like the one last year and the one during the 2009-10 season, had little margin for error. It’s the same with this team. The Tar Heels just can’t afford a bad night at the free throw line, or the kind of mistakes UNC made late in the game. Some of UNC’s more talented, deeper teams wouldn’t have been in that position, anyway. But this one was, and it broke down towards the end of the game. The Tar Heels had three turnovers in the final two minutes. They didn’t defend Belmont on the perimeter. And after Belmont took an 81-80 lead with 14 seconds remaining, UNC didn’t get off a good shot.
-- J.P. Tokoto, the sophomore forward who missed 12 of his 16 free-throw attempts on Sunday night, spent time shooting free throws in an empty Smith Center in the hours after the game. Tokoto attributed his free throws woes to a mechanical issue – a failure to keep his elbow in during his release – and a loss of confidence. “That’s pretty much all it was,” he said. “Was mental for me.”
--The Tar Heels generated just two fast break points, and those didn’t come until late in the second half on a Brice Johnson breakaway dunk. Creating scoring opportunities in transition – and on the break – is one of the tenets of Roy Williams’ system, but Belmont limited UNC’s chances. “They did a good job of sending guys back,” UNC guard Marcus Paige said. “Every opportunity we had to fast break, they already had three guys back.”
--UNC struggled throughout the first half to switch on screens, which left Belmont’s shooters open on the perimeter. The Bruins finished with 15 3-pointers. The Tar Heels, though, were at their defensive best in the second half when they effectively switched on screens. That played a large role in UNC’s second-half comeback, when the Tar Heels went from trailing by 11 points to leading by eight. Later in the game, Belmont adjusted and executed more dribble hand-offs on the perimeter. More often than not, that led to open shots, including the go-ahead 3-pointer that J.J. Mann made with 14 seconds to play.
--It’s clear Williams is still searching for his best lineup – and substitution pattern – with his short-handed team. The rotation likely would be more fluid with Hairston and McDonald, both of whom are sitting out due to eligilibity concerns. Said Williams: “We’re struggling a little bit now, trying to find the right lineup at the right time.” Williams would prefer to use a larger lineup without Hairston and McDonald, but Belmont made it difficult for UNC because of its preference to spread the floor with smaller players.
UNC travels to Connecticut for the Hall of Fame Tip-Off tournament – of which the Holy Cross and Belmont games were, technically, a part of. But now the games take on a tournament format. The Tar Heels play against Richmond on Saturday. If they win that, they likely would play against Louisville, the defending national champions, on Sunday.