For the majority of the first two weeks of this young season, North Carolina provided positive answers to essentially every question it faced in early November. During that stretch, the Tar Heels’ three freshman post players, and especially Sterling Manley, performed well enough to suggest that UNC might not miss what it lost as much as everyone assumed.
Luke Maye, meanwhile, played like an All-American. Joel Berry and Theo Pinson played like themselves. Kenny Williams, back from an injury, played better than ever. UNC did not look like a team rebuilding amid the departures of three starters as much as it did like a team that might just be building toward another long March run.
Reality came here on Sunday, though, against Michigan State in one of the two championship games of the PK80. The No. 9 Tar Heels faltered in the first half, especially, on their way to an 63-45 defeat against the fourth-ranked Spartans, who punished UNC with their size and aggression, especially defensively. The Tar Heels made 24.6 percent of their attempts from the field – their worst shooting performance in school history.
For UNC (5-1), the defeat broke two long streaks. It broke an 11-game winning streak, for one – a streak that began with the Tar Heels’ first-round victory against Texas Southern in the NCAA tournament last March. That streak carried UNC through its sixth NCAA championship, through the start of this season and through the final game of an 11-day, four-game trip to the West Coast.
Also over: the Tar Heels’ seven-game winning streak against Michigan State (5-1). Under coach Roy Williams, UNC had never lost against the Spartans. Victories came in the Final Four, and in a national championship game and, in 2011, on an aircraft carrier in San Diego – the USS Carl Vinson. With all of those victories, Williams long held an advantage over his friend, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
At last on Sunday, Izzo’s team was mightier, more poised, more polished. The Spartans were more physical, especially, and that might have been the greatest difference between these teams. Michigan State, with a defense that allowed no room for error or much of anything else, often bullied the Tar Heels, who routinely found themselves settling for long, low-percentage shots in the first half.
UNC more often than not found it impossible to penetrate Michigan State’s defense. When the Tar Heels did penetrate, or when they managed to successfully pass to the inside, a large Michigan State player often waited, standing guard. Nick Ward, the 6-foot-8, 245-pound forward, was among them. He blocked two shots in the first half and two more in the second.
The Tar Heels’ freshman forwards, who’d perhaps been more serviceable than anticipated early in this season, seemed over-matched, both physical and mentally. At one point in the first half, Brandon Huffman, one of those freshman, had possession down low and attempted a shot. Ward blocked it. Huffman regained control, went up again and, this time, Ward swatted the attempt out of bounds.
At another point in the second half, with about 12 1/2 minutes remaining, Ward collided with Sterling Manley, another one of UNC’s freshman forwards. The force of the collision sent Manley tumbling off the court, and he had to be held up by an official to avoid falling into a spectator on the first row. By then Michigan State held a 50-33 lead.
It grew to as large as 21. The Tar Heels, known for their toughness throughout their run to the national championship last spring, showed some of that late. Their 9-0 cut Michigan State’s lead to 12 with about 4 1/2 minutes remaining. And then, soon enough, the Spartans, led by Joshua Langford’s 20 points, led by 17 points again.
UNC labored through a miserable shooting performance – its worst ever, as it turned out. Pinson led UNC with 16 points and made six of his 12 shots from the field. The rest of the team made nine of its 49 attempts. The Tar Heels, who trailed by 14 points at halftime, never trailed by fewer than 10 points in the second.
They experienced defeat for the first time since early last March, when their loss against Duke in the ACC tournament provided some motivational fuel for what was to come during the NCAA tournament. This defeat, on Sunday night, came with plenty of lessons of its own.