They’re packing up here in San Antonio, breaking down the set on a stage where North Carolina’s season came to an end with an 85-83 defeat against Iowa State here on Sunday night in the NCAA tournament.
UNC coach Roy Williams has described this season as his most difficult, and so maybe it was fitting in a way that it ended in one of the most difficult ways imaginable: losing a late eight-point lead, and then losing the game on DeAndre Kane’s layup with 1.6 seconds to play.
As we normally do here after the final buzzer …
1. A difficult season comes to a bitter end.
I alluded to this above, and in the story I wrote off the game, but it does indeed somehow seem appropriate that the Tar Heels’ season would end like this, in heartbreak. Not because they deserved it, but because nothing was ever easy for this team. The P.J. Hairston drama. The 1-4 start in the ACC. The Tar Heels’ margin was always so small, and you saw that again tonight when, again, the game came down to the final possession. So many things could have gone either way for UNC this season. So many what-ifs, starting with the ultimate one at the very beginning of the season: What if Hairston could have stayed out of trouble? UNC’s final game featured another one: What if Brice Johnson doesn’t get hurt? A long, sometimes-difficult season came to a difficult end.
2. Speaking of Johnson’s injury …
No, losing Johnson didn’t cost UNC the game. That’d be too easy to say, and his absence is too easy of an excuse. Who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t suffered a sprained ankle less than six minutes in? It’s impossible to say. We do know, though, that Johnson is the Tar Heels’ best offensive player in the post. We also know that while he’s not a very good defender, he’s capable of altering shots around the rim. So if Johnson is able to play, maybe UNC more effectively exploits Iowa State’s lack of size on the interior. And maybe he’s in the game on Iowa State’s possession, when Kane drove the lane and made that shot off the backboard with 1.6 seconds to play. UNC couldn’t have afforded to lose any of its top players on Sunday, but losing Johnson made it significantly more difficult for the Tar Heels to take advantage of their size.
3. Iowa State was nearly flawless late, and capitalized on every UNC mistake.
The Tar Heels have been a good team in tense, late-game situations, but they weren’t on Sunday. At least they weren’t as often as they needed to be. There were some good moments. James Michael McAdoo made two free throws, under a lot of pressure, that tied the game with 15 seconds to play. Leslie McDonald, the senior guard playing his final college game, made an important 3-pointer that gave UNC a three-point lead with about a minute and a half left. Outside of those two moments, though, UNC struggled down the stretch.
Iowa State, meanwhile, was at its best in the final moments. Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels’ sophomore guard, took the loss especially hard because of his turnover with 31 seconds to play – a turnover that led to a layup that gave Iowa State the lead. But that turnover was hardly the Tar Heels’ only late mistake. They didn’t defend well in the final few minutes and they failed to protect their eight-point lead. During the final 3 minutes, 45 seconds, Iowa State was 7-for-8 from the field. UNC closed the game 2-for-7 from the field.
The Tar Heels enter the off-season.