It wasn’t one thing or even two, or three, that Roy Williams didn’t like about what his team did in the first half at Indiana. Instead, he said, it was “everything.”
Then he went down the list after the Tar Heels’ 76-67 loss against the Hoosiers on Wednesday, checking off those failures one by one, the frustration mounting. Hadn’t he just been over this, anyway? One of the first things he said after it ended was how his team had been unprepared for the moment.
“One team really played right from the get-go,” he said. “The second one did not and that was us.”
After about 8 ½ minutes at rocking, rollicking Assembly Hall, no UNC player aside from Justin Jackson had made a shot from the field. The No. 3 Tar Heels (7-1) had committed four turnovers by then, and 13th-ranked Indiana (5-1) was on its way to taking a 17-point lead midway through the first half.
So asking Williams what specifically went wrong during those first 10 minutes was like asking him to recite the components of an entire basketball game – from coaching to rebounding to shot selection and everything else.
“Everything,” he said. “I told you. We weren’t ready to play. I can’t say that we didn’t line up correctly. We didn’t shoot free throws, we didn’t rebound the basketball, we didn’t get the loose balls. At the half they had more second-chance points. They had five or six fast-break points – we had none.”
He started to grit his teeth and shake his head.
We weren’t ready to play. I can’t say that we didn’t line up correctly. We didn’t shoot free throws, we didn’t rebound the basketball, we didn’t get the loose balls. At the half they had more second-chance points. They had five or six fast-break points – we had none.
“Everything,” Williams said again, almost clenching his lips as he said it. “Everything.”
And so that was the bad for the Tar Heels: that they did nothing well at the start.
Williams earlier in the week had warned his players about what was ahead, the challenge of playing at Indiana, in a raucous, wild environment. Williams had said this would be “a different animal” compared to UNC’s first seven games.
And yet the Tar Heels had played so well in those first seven games. They’d won all of them by at least 15 points. They won the Maui Invitational last week, winning three games in that tournament by an average of 30 points. There was talk that UNC was better than it was a season ago.
And then came Wednesday when the Hoosiers “just came out and attacked us,” said Joel Berry, the Tar Heels’ junior point guard.
Berry and his teammates had often been the instigators during UNC’s first seven games. It wasn’t so when Indiana built a first-half lead so large that the Tar Heels never came within a possession of erasing it – though they did come close.
Six times in the second half, UNC cut Indiana’s lead to eight points. Five of those times, the Hoosiers, with five players in double figures, responded and immediately extended it back into double figures. The final time UNC cut its deficit to eight, it didn’t stop there.
The Tar Heels made it a six-point game, and then trailed by four points with a little less than five minutes remaining after Berry made a runner that bounced high off the backboard and in. UNC had hope then, and some fight. Even Williams had to give his team that much.
“Second half, I didn’t think our guys would quit and they didn’t,” he said.
But then, after junior forward/guard Justin Jackson made a 3-pointer to cut the Hoosiers’ lead to five with 3 ½ minutes to play, the Hoosiers did what they did at the start: they seized control. One of their most important shots came moments before the 3 from Jackson, who led the Tar Heels with 21 points.
After Berry had made it a four-point margin Hoosier junior guard James Blackmon, whose status had been in doubt because of a lingering knee injury, made a 3-pointer that turned the momentum back in Indiana’s favor.
“That’s what coach was talking about,” Isaiah Hicks, the senior forward, later said of Blackmon’s shot. “We’ve got to make big plays like that.”
The Tar Heels didn’t on Wednesday. They labored through a first half in which they lacked an offensive rhythm and identity. Hicks, for one, didn’t even attempt a shot during the first 20 minutes.
The second half brought a rally but it was too little, too late. The Tar Heels never overcame their poor start, never overcame their 39.3 percent shooting – their worst of the season – and never appeared at ease amid the pressure of the moment and the environment. Williams afterward tried to use this as a lesson. He’d warned his players what was to come against Indiana before it happened.
He offered another omen.
“I told the guys we have 19 more games against teams just like that,” Williams said. “That will play just as aggressively as that team will.”