By the time North Carolina gave itself a chance on Wednesday night, by the time the Tar Heels adapted to the pressure of the moment, and the environment, it was, as junior guard Joel Berry said, “just too late for us.”
He and his teammates were getting dressed, packing up their things in the visitors’ locker room at Assembly Hall after their 76-67 defeat against Indiana. It was a game in which the Tar Heels, who trailed for all of 16 seconds last week in three games in the Maui Invitational, never led.
UNC arrived here on Wednesday night ranked third nationally after seven consecutive victories by at least 15 points. Already, before the first day of December, there had been talk that perhaps the Tar Heels were even better than they were a year ago, that maybe they were the nation’s best team.
By the end of 40 minutes at raucous, rocking Assembly Hall, though, the only talk among Berry and his teammates was about what could be learned from this, a sound defeat that in some ways was decided a mere 10 minutes into the game. By then the Hoosiers had built a 17-point lead.
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“We’ve just got to learn from it,” said Berry, who missed 10 of his 13 attempts from the field and finished with eight points. “We missed a lot of free throws. Missed a lot of easy shots. But on the defensive end, we didn’t get any stops like we wanted to, and I think that’s what put us in that hole.”
The Tar Heels could lament their mediocre free-throw shooting after missing nine of their 22 attempts from the line. They could bemoan the misses from the field, where they shot a season-low 39.3 percent. Those were two of the numbers that helped tell the story on Wednesday night.
Some of UNC’s other deficiencies weren’t easily quantified. Those were the ones that coach Roy Williams spent the most time discussing in the aftermath. During the first month of the season, Williams hasn’t often decried a lack of effort or toughness or hustle.
He didn’t on Wednesday, either, though he said his team wasn’t prepared for what awaited.
“I don’t think our kids understood what we were talking about when we said how emotional it’s going to be, how much they’re going to be in the game,” Williams said. “... They were more aggressive in every phase of the game. We backed up. They challenged us, and we backed up.”
As well as the Tar Heels played during their first seven games, they weren’t often challenged. During the Maui Invitational, for instance, they won comfortably against Oklahoma State and Wisconsin, the two best teams UNC played there.
During the four games before those, the Tar Heels had their way against over-matched opponents. UNC had yet to encounter the kind of test that Indiana offered on Wednesday, and the Tar Heels had yet to try to perform in the kind of hostile environment that awaited at Assembly Hall.
The night before, thousands of students camped out to ensure they’d be in the arena by tip-off about 24 hours later, said Tom Crean, the Indiana coach. In the hours before the start on Wednesday, those thousands of students waited outside in the cold, a formidable mob that appeared anxious to erupt.
Williams afterward sounded envious of the environment. He said he wished he’d more often experience at the Smith Center what he did at Indiana, where people screamed and jumped with so much force that, at times, it felt like the building was shaking.
“I’d like to play in front of a crowd like that in the Smith Center every night other than the frickin’ Duke game,” Williams said.
Then again, he wished for a lot of things. That his team would have made its free throws. That it would have played with more patience. That it would have come up with a defensive stop any one of the first five times that UNC cut Indiana’s lead to eight points in the second half.
The defeat, though, left the Tar Heels with something Williams values almost as much as victory: an education. UNC lost games similar to this one a season ago, on its way to playing on the final night of the season. And this defeat, senior forward Isaiah Hicks said, “is a loss that we can learn from.”
Every defeat is, after all. Sometimes the lessons are specific to a play, or an aspect of the game, something like rebounding or ball movement. On Wednesday the lessons were broader. Williams walked out of Assembly Hall hoping his players understood “that’s a different level” of competition.
“And life is not always easy,” he said. “... There was no single thing in the first half. I mean, it was 27,000 things. But the biggest thing we’ve got to learn is that everybody’s not going to roll over and play dead just because North Carolina walks in.”
To the contrary, the Hoosiers thrived off the energy that UNC’s arrival created. Hours before tip-off there was an energy at Assembly Hall. The nation’s largest student section was already filling up.
Soon it was game time, and then pandemonium. The Hoosiers needed about 10 minutes to take a 17-point lead.
The Tar Heels tried to rally. They eventually cut their deficit to four points with a little less than five minutes remaining, but the game ended as it began: with Indiana aggressively taking charge, with UNC in retreat. And, finally, with the Tar Heels attempting to take what lessons they could.
“So let’s match that enthusiasm,” Williams said. “If I go into your house, I know it’s going to be tougher for me to beat you in your house by I’m by God going to play harder to beat you in your house. And so I hoped they learned that.”