The turnovers came early for North Carolina on Saturday, they came often and they came in an array of forms: a travel 25 feet from the basket, after Seventh Woods mysteriously picked up his dribble; on a pass that bounced off Joel Berry’s leg; on another pass, on an ill-fated alley-oop attempt to Luke Maye, that landed out of bounds.
After that one UNC coach Roy Williams put his hands in his pockets and wore the expression of a man who’d just watched a close friend do something embarrassing. It was a look of pained sympathy, and it was a fitting sight during the Tar Heels’ stunning 75-63 defeat at Georgia Tech, which won its ACC opener under first-year coach Josh Pastner.
Pastner’s first season is designed to be a rebuilding year, the start of a project that is likely to last a while before Georgia Tech returns – if it returns – to the form of those years in the 1980s, ’90s and early 2000s when the Yellow Jackets were among the most competitive teams in the ACC. This was supposed to be a year with many lows, but few highs.
But the highest of them, so far, came on Saturday at McCamish Pavilion, where UNC fans outnumbered those cheering for the Yellow Jackets, whose football team was playing at the same time in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville. Those Georgia Tech enthusiasts who ignored basketball in favor of football missed one of the Yellow Jackets’ best victories in years.
It began to take shape in the final minutes, when Georgia Tech stretched a five-point lead to seven, and then nine – and then 10 in the final 90 seconds. With a minute to play, the Tar Heels trailed by 12, and the result wasn’t much in doubt.
It was an upset – one of the most surprising in the country on the first full Saturday of conference play in college basketball – but in the context of the 40 minutes these teams shared here, the result wasn’t surprising. The Tar Heels rarely operated with success in their half-court offense, and they finished with a season-high 20 turnovers.
UNC’s best offense came in transition, which is usually the case, but outside of its 12 fast-break points the Tar Heels found little success against the Yellow Jackets’ 1-3-1 zone defense. At one point near the midway point of the second half, the Tar Heels were ending possessions with points as often as they were turnovers.
UNC trailed for more than 21 minutes, and its 32-29 halftime lead quickly evaporated while Georgia Tech began the second half on a 9-2 run. The Yellow Jackets, picked to finish 14th in the 15-team ACC, took the lead for good with about 11½ minutes remaining.
The defeat snapped the Tar Heels’ seven-game winning streak in this series. Only one of UNC’s past seven victories against Georgia Tech were decided by single digits, and the Tar Heels’ eight-point victory a season ago in Chapel Hill wasn’t necessarily in doubt in the final minutes.
Neither was this one after Georgia Tech took an eight-point lead with a little less than three minutes to play and then a 10-point lead with 93 seconds remaining. UNC never mounted a charge, never made a serious comeback attempt.
Josh Okogie, a Yellow Jackets’ freshman guard, led his team with 26 points. He was the best player on the court – better and more poised than UNC juniors Joel Berry and Justin Jackson, who in the early part of the season emerged as viable ACC Player of the Year candidates.
Berry, still working his way back from an illness, made three of his 13 attempts and finished with eight points. Jackson led UNC with 16, but missed all five of his 3-point attempts. The Tar Heels, who have been an improved 3-point shooting team, missed 21 of their 26 attempts.
UNC coach Roy Williams walked over early to shake hands with Pastner. Williams said he was worried the home team fans might rush the court in celebration. There was no court-rushing, though, in what felt more like a UNC home game than one on the road.
The thousands of Tar Heels supporters who made their way into McCamish Pavilion tried to urge their team on in the final minutes. There were loud chants of “de-fense” when UNC was on defense, and the traditional “Tar … Heels” chant. But nothing helped UNC get going.
The Tar Heels walked off the court on the other side of the one of the ACC’s most surprising upsets in recent seasons.