Theo Pinson, the North Carolina junior forward who does a little bit of everything, was on the bench in a suit and a boot on Saturday. That was one difference for the Tar Heels – they were without one of their catalysts. And yet, still, after UNC’s 77-62 defeat against Miami, it might have been fair to wonder, too, about the guys in the blue jerseys, and the one in the blue plaid coat.
All that good will UNC had built in recent weeks, all the good vibes and momentum – the whispers about the Tar Heels being in control in the rugged, rough ACC – evaporated in the haze of one of the worst first halves in recent history, if not UNC’s entire basketball history. By the end of a 15-point loss that felt more one-sided than that, the Tar Heels walked off the court humbled, faced with uncertainty.
There hasn’t been much of that for No. 9 UNC this season. Not amid that torrid start back in November. Not during seven games before Saturday, a stretch that included a 51-point victory against N.C. State and a few gritty road wins, too. And yet UNC lacked energy without its energy man, and for long stretches it simply lacked the ability to make shots from anywhere.
This wasn’t the UNC team that at times has made it look effortless in recent weeks. Roy Williams, the Tar Heels coach, didn’t recognize this version of his team – though he’d seen it before this season, if only rarely – and maybe his players didn’t recognize him, either.
“It looked like a different team out there on the court, to me,” Williams said, “and they probably looked over at me and thought I was a different coach than what we’ve had recently, too.”
There wasn’t much Williams could say, which is one of the things he said: that he was a bit speechless.
In the locker room at halftime he’d told his players that Miami had beaten them by “a million” during the first 20 minutes. It must have felt that way, after the Hurricanes outscored the Tar Heels 37-11 during the final 17 minutes of the half. UNC shot 20.7 percent during those first 20 minutes – its second-worst shooting percentage in a half in Williams’ 14 seasons.
“Nothing more to it,” junior guard Joel Berry said afterward, “than just not hitting shots.”
Berry missed all eight of his attempts from the field. Outside of Justin Jackson and Isaiah Hicks, who combined to make five shots from the field in the first half, the Tar Heels (19-4, 7-2) missed 20 of their 21 attempts before halftime. They missed short shots and long shots and medium shots. They missed from everywhere, it seemed, and from anywhere.
They looked lost, at times, against Miami’s 2-3 zone defense. The Hurricanes (14-6, 4-4) switched into it early and stayed in it, Williams said, “because they had so much success.”
That was one of the questions the debacle against the Hurricanes created for UNC: Why so much trouble against zones?
The Tar Heels’ two worst offensive performances of the season have come against Georgia Tech’s 1-3-1 zone, and now against Miami’s 2-3, which for most of the game limited the Tar Heels’ ability to work the ball inside. Jackson, for one, didn’t see similarities between what happened at Georgia Tech on Dec. 31 and what happened at Miami.
“We shot a terrible percentage,” he said. “But we were still getting shots that we wanted.”
That might have been true on the perimeter. On the inside, though, Miami limited Kennedy Meeks, a senior forward, to three attempts from the field. Hicks attempted six shots. The Tar Heels scored only 22 points in the paint. Miami, meanwhile, more or less did what it wanted offensively, and freshman guard Bruce Brown finished with 30 points.
It was the second consecutive weekend in which a freshman guard scored 30 points against UNC. Williams mentioned the usual things he mentions after a loss: lack of toughness, effort, energy.
Yet he also cited how UNC did a “terrible job” working possessions into the interior. That was one thing that bothered Williams. Another: Miami finished with five more rebounds (41-36) than the Tar Heels, who entered Saturday as the nation’s best rebounding team.
Was Pinson’s absence part of malaise? The thought sounded like an excuse to Williams, but with Pinson back in the lineup during the previous six games, the Tar Heels had played some of their best, most consistent stretches of the season. Against Miami, he could only encourage his teammates from the bench.
“We’re not going to blame it on that,” Berry said. “Things like that happen, and you’ve just got to play ball. And we didn’t do that today.”
Pinson, according to school officials, “rolled” his right ankle during UNC’s victory on Thursday against Virginia Tech. He continues to be evaluated, and Williams said he hoped to have clarity about Pinson’s status “in the next few days.”
That was one of the most important questions surrounding the Tar Heels while they boarded their bus after a performance nobody could have seen coming. Among the others: Are the repeated problems against the zone indicative of a larger fault in UNC’s offense?
And what to make of a first half that was among the worst of Williams’ tenure? Afterward he looked down at the box score and said it was a “weird day” to see that Miami finished with 11 fast break points to UNC’s zero.
That was only part of the weirdness, along with the Tar Heels’ woes on the interior, and the rebounding and everything that went awry in the first half. All the while Pinson, a role player who thrives in so many roles, took it all in, with no one certain about when he might be able to play again. The Tar Heels could have used him on Saturday but they could have used a lot of things.
“That was a big-time kicking of our rear-ends, is what it was,” Williams said.