When North Carolina’s top two scorers, Cam Johnson and Luke Maye, had trouble hitting shots Thursday against Texas, freshman guard Coby White took it back to his high school days at Greenfield School.
He dropped buckets.
White scored 33 points and was 7-for-10 from behind the 3-point line. He was having the best game of his young college career. During the game’s final six minutes he scored 10 consecutive points, and helped cut what was once an 11-point Texas lead to two with about two minutes left in the game.
But his heroics were not enough, and the Tar Heels fell to the Longhorns 92-89, their first loss of the season. No. 7 UNC will face No. 17 UCLA (4-1) on Friday at 4 p.m.
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After the game, White was visibly distraught. He said there was nothing different in his preparation than in other games.
“I was just hitting shots today,” White said.
But he said the thing that stuck with him was the message UNC coach Roy Williams gave the team after the game.
“We played soft,” White said. “In the first half we let them punch us in the mouth. We didn’t play tough, and for us, for (coach Williams) to call us not playing tough, it should hurt all of us. I know it hurt me. Because that’s one thing I thrive on. I try to play tough and hard every game. We’ve just got to play tougher. We’ve got to put two halves together and play better.”
UNC (5-1) had won its first five games by an average of 30.6 points per game. Its closest win was its season-opener against Wofford 78-67. But since then, the Tar Heels had handled the rest of their opponents with ease.
Against Texas (5-0), a team with much better talent, and a coach in Shaka Smart who has Final Four experience, that wasn’t expected to happen. The Longhorns would be the Tar Heels’ first real test of the season, the kind of team UNC might face in the NCAA tournament.
The Tar Heels landed the first “punch” on Thursday, getting out to a 17-4 lead during the game’s first five minutes. White had two three-pointers and Maye one in the run.
But Texas finally settled down -- with the help of UNC. The Tar Heels turned the ball over 14 times in the first half, and the Longhorns took advantage, converting those turnovers into 24 points.
Five of those points came in the final 49 seconds of the first half. UNC turned it over twice, and Texas converted it into five points, including a 3-pointer at the buzzer to go up by one point at halftime.
Turnovers have been one of the Tar Heels’ biggest issues, if not the biggest this season. UNC averages 13.8 turnovers per game, and had a season-high 18 against St. Francis on Monday.
“It’s the same thing,” UNC senior guard Kenny Williams said. “And that’s what the coaches said. They can’t keep harping on the same thing and then us not changing our behavior.”
The Tar Heels were better at taking care of the basketball in the second half. They turned it over three times. But Texas stayed ahead because it shot 63 percent from the floor in the second half.
Texas senior guard Kerwin Roach II had his way with the Tar Heels. He scored 32 points, was 12-for-15 from the floor and 3-for-3 from behind the 3-point line.
“We let them get too many easy opportunities at the rim,” graduate wing Cam Johnson, who had 16 points on Thursday night, said. Texas had 34 points in the paint, while UNC had 30.
When asked the biggest lesson his team could take from the loss, coach Williams said, “We’ll have to wait and see if they did learn anything.”
“If you have a brain at all, you’ll learn that you don’t turn the ball over 14 times in one half,” he added. “You’ve got to stay in front of the basketball, and the biggest thing, the biggest thing is that if you are trying to come back, you got to take good shots. I said to take five more seconds to get you a better shot. We took three bad shots in a row.”
UCLA lost to Michigan State 87-67 on Thursday. The Bruins shot 36 percent from the floor and 29 percent from 3.