All around the country on Saturday afternoon people might have encountered the score on the bottom scroll on television, or on Twitter, or on their phones. They might have seen it and been stunned at the numbers: Georgia Tech 75, North Carolina 63.
A team that was picked to finish second-to-last in the ACC defeating one that’s ranked ninth nationally. The Yellow Jackets, in rebuilding mode in coach Josh Pastner’s first season, beating a team that, at times during the first two months of the season, has looked like a national title contender.
It was a wild Saturday in the ACC – the first Saturday of conference games – what with what happened here at McCamish Pavilion and what transpired a couple of states north in Blacksburg, Va., where Virginia Tech defeated Duke. They were two stunning results.
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And yet inside their locker room on Saturday, the Tar Heels weren’t stunned. How could they have been surprised at the result, after all, given the way they played on Saturday? Roy Williams, the UNC coach, used “ugly” more than once when he met with reporters afterward. That was one word for it.
Another was “awful” and “terrible,” and Justin Jackson, the junior wing forward, used both of those in the span of about 15 seconds to describe UNC’s performance. It was Jackson, who led UNC with 16 points – as if anybody really led the Tar Heels – who posited the theory that this wasn’t too stunning.
“We’re not stunned,” he said. “Because we didn’t play well at all. We didn’t play hard, we didn’t play the way we’re supposed to play. So at the end of the day, we’re not stunned. We expect to lose when we play like the way we just played.”
During the first few weeks of the season, the Tar Heels (12-3, 0-1 ACC) played so well they created a question that few expected so early: Were they somehow better than they were last year, after losing Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige?
That the thought was conceivable was a testament to the progression of Jackson and Joel Berry, the junior point guard. In those early weeks, UNC received consistent, reliable contributions from seniors Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, too, among others.
After Saturday there was another question: Is this as poorly as UNC can possibly play?
“I would say so,” Hicks said, after giving it several seconds of hard thought.
Hicks finished with a quiet nine points. Berry, still working his way back from an illness, missed 10 of his 13 shots and scored eight points. Jackson’s 16, meanwhile, came with a caveat: He missed all five of his 3-point attempts, after making five in the first half earlier in the week against Monmouth.
The Tar Heels’ best hope on Saturday was to outrun the Georgia Tech defense and score before it was set. And if UNC couldn’t do that, then it often couldn’t score against the Yellow Jackets’ 1-3-1 zone, which the Tar Heels helped, time and again, by missing open looks.
Of the zone, Williams said the Tar Heels “practiced against it” on Friday. During the game, though, the movement that Williams noticed in practice was absent. There was a lot of standing around, little attacking and many a self-inflicted wound.
Like, for instance, the traveling violation in the first half when Seventh Woods, the freshman guard, mysteriously picked up his dribble 25 feet away from the basket. Or when an ill-fated alley-oop attempt to reserve forward Luke Maye, not known for dunking, landed in the first row. There were 18 other turnovers.
“We tried to penetrate to the basket, and we lost it on penetration,” Williams said. “We got an offensive rebound and three different times go up to lay it up and lost it on that. There were a lot of ways.”
When that pass to Maye sailed high and landed out of bounds, Williams, who was coaching through an illness, put his hands in his pockets and wore the expression of an embarrassed man. He shook his head slightly and then the Yellow Jackets, who led for the final 11½ minutes, gained more confidence and extended their lead.
Berry, the UNC point guard, said he started to realize the Tar Heels were in real trouble during the final three or four minutes, when the Yellow Jackets (9-4, 1-0), buoyed by success that nobody saw coming on Saturday, kept making shot after shot – six of them in a row from the field at one point.
During that stretch the Yellow Jackets scored on two dunks and two 3-pointers, while the Tar Heels continued to falter offensively. It wasn’t so much Georgia Tech’s defense, Berry said.
“To be truthful, their defense, they were active a little bit, but it was just there to take up for the fact that they can’t guard man-to-man,” Berry said. “And I don’t think that it really put any pressure on us, it was just there. And I think we didn’t hit as many shots as we should.”
Indeed, during one long stretch UNC missed 23 of its 27 attempts from the field. About halfway through the second half, they were ending possessions with points as often as they were ending them with turnovers.
Meanwhile, Josh Okogie, the Georgia Tech freshman guard, scored 26 points in his first ACC game. UNC didn’t recruit Okogie, a native of Georgia, but East Carolina did. Georgia Tech was the only ACC school that offered him a scholarship, which isn’t atypical on Paster’s makeshift roster.
Berry acknowledged that UNC overlooked Georgia Tech because, well … “because it’s Georgia Tech,” he said. Then the Tar Heels, who’d beaten the Yellow Jackets seven consecutive times before Saturday, were left to contemplate a stunning loss that wasn’t all that stunning, after all.
“If we don’t take teams more serious, we’re going to be 0-2, 0-3, 0-4,” Jackson said. “... As a team, we played awful. As individuals, we played awful.”
He said some nice things about guards Nate Britt and Kenny Williams, and their effort.
“But outside of those two,” Jackson said, “we played terrible.”
After wondering how good UNC might be, the question is now is whether this is as bad as it gets.