The circumstances against Kentucky were the same for North Carolina, in a way, as they’d been nearly a week earlier against Tennessee, and similar to the game against Davidson and even the one before that against Indiana. In all of them the Tar Heels followed a familiar pattern: start slowly, surge late.
That’s how it was on Nov. 30 against Indiana, where UNC trailed by as many as 17 points in the first half of the Hoosiers’ 76-67 victory. Against Davidson, UNC overcame a sluggish start in an 83-74 victory. And then the Tar Heels erased a 15-point deficit during a 75-73 win against Tennessee.
And then came Saturday. UNC’s 103-100 defeat against Kentucky came in what some called college basketball’s best regular season game in a long time. It will be remembered as a classic, the Wildcats hanging on in the final seconds, thanks in no small part to Malik Monk’s 48 points.
Somewhat lost in the madness of that game, though, is that for UNC it represented the continuation of a troubling trend of slow starts. The Tar Heels trailed Kentucky by as many as 12 points during the first half, and UNC’s deficit was six points with 10 minutes remaining before halftime.
It was a familiar sight, UNC losing at the midway point of the first half, and a trend the Tar Heels (10-2) will hope to end on Wednesday at the Smith Center against Northern Iowa (5-5). The Panthers won 23 games a season ago and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament.
UNC’s returning players remember Northern Iowa for a different reason: The Panthers beat UNC last November in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in what was scheduled as Marcus Paige’s homecoming game. Paige, an Iowa native, didn’t play because of his broken hand.
The notion of a little bit of vengeance, then, is a natural story line entering Wednesday. Beyond a victory, though, second on the list of priorities for the Tar Heels might simply be to start the game the way they’ve been finishing them lately.
Slow starts, after all, have become expected for UNC. During the Tar Heels’ past five games, they’ve held a lead midway through the first half in just one of them – and that was against Radford, which according to kenpom.com is the weakest team on UNC’s schedule.
During the first 10 minutes of those four games – 40 minutes, an entire game’s worth – UNC has trailed by a combined score of 93-65. The Tar Heels won the final 30 minutes in all four, and they overcame their slow start for victories in two of those games.
Even so, they needed a rally in the final minutes to come back and beat Tennessee. And their slow starts doomed them in a defeat at Indiana and left them scrambling, again, against Kentucky, which also led by 10 points with about seven minutes remaining in the game on Saturday.
The ending on Saturday is what people might most remember: The shots Justin Jackson made to give UNC the lead twice during the final two minutes; the 3-pointers that Monk made in return to ultimately give the Wildcats the lead; the Tar Heels’ Kenny Williams missing a last-second 3 that would’ve tied it.
UNC coach Roy Williams and his players, though, might most remember the beginning: the hole they dug themselves early. One of the first things Williams brought up with his players afterward was what happened early in the first half, while Kentucky built a lead that eventually grew as large as 12 points.
“He was just telling us that he loved our resilience and battling back,” senior forward Isaiah Hicks said, “but we just can’t get in a hole early. We’ve got to be able to keep punching – we need to be able to punch them in the mouth first instead of being on our heels.”
UNC excelled at that, usually, during the first few weeks of the season. The Tar Heels imposed their will early, built large leads and often won with little trouble. Since then it has been a different story, UNC trailing early by 17 against Indiana, and by 15 against Tennessee and by 12 against Kentucky.
The defeat against the Wildcats on Saturday offered many lessons, including a refresher for one that is becoming familiar. Once again, UNC found itself with a double-digit first-half deficit.
“We cannot dig those holes that we have dug ourselves into early against good teams,” sophomore guard Kenny Williams said. “Because good teams are going to be hard to come back against. And you exert more energy trying to come back, and once you get there you’ve spent so much energy trying to get back, it’s tougher trying to keep the lead.”