Most times after North Carolina defeats this season coach Roy Williams has taken his time speaking with his players in the locker room, and they have taken their time processing what transpired. This wasn't one of those nights.
After the Tar Heels' 58-46 defeat against N.C. State on Tuesday night, Williams spoke with his players quickly before addressing reporters. While he did that, his players packed up and left. They tried to make sense of the loss while they walked out of the Smith Center in heavy winter coats.
That wasn't an easy task, though, making sense of this defeat. UNC, it seemed, had figured things out. It entered its game against the Wolfpack having just played two of its strongest games of the season. And then that happened – UNC's first home loss against N.C. State under Williams.
Asked how to make sense of it – how UNC could be so thoroughly outplayed and overwhelmed just days removed from one of its sharpest performances in a victory against Georgia Tech – the Tar Heels had no answers. Marcus Paige, the junior guard, struggled to come up with the right words.
“I don't know,” he said. “That's a good question. At this point in the season, you can't let this – that could end up defining their season, but we can't let this deter us from what we want to do. We're still in decent shape to be in the top four and get a double bye for the ACC tournament. We're still in good shape in that regard, so we kind of just have to keep our heads up and move forward for Miami.”
The Tar Heels have said that kind of thing before. Keeping their heads up, moving forward – that was their mantra during a rough stretch when they lost four out of five games, the last of which was the 92-90 overtime defeat at Duke last week.
In that loss, though, UNC found no shortage of positives. And then came the dismantling of Georgia Tech on Saturday. Finally, the Tar Heels had rediscovered some momentum.
And then came Tuesday night. UNC hadn't lost against N.C. State in the Smith Center since 2003. Few of the Tar Heels' victories during that 12-game streak were even all that close. Usually, UNC dominated N.C. State early, sucked out the drama and spent the second half protecting a large lead.
So how to explain Tuesday night?
“You don't,” said Brice Johnson, the junior forward who made just one of his six shots from the field and scored four points. “That was awful. I mean, we've got to do better. We've got to be ready to play from the tip. … They came in here and they beat us.”
That much was obvious enough, and Williams put it another way.
“The bottom line is North Carolina State kicked our rear ends,” he said.
As well as the Wolfpack played in victory, the Tar Heels played equally poorly in defeat. N.C. State's defensive strategy was clear enough: force someone other than Paige – who has had some great, memorable moments against the Wolfpack – to win the game.
And then, on the interior, deny the Tar Heels' any clean looks at the basket. UNC was supposed to have an advantage in the post but it hardly did on Tuesday. Not with how physical the Wolfpack played down low.
N.C. State's game plan worked better than even coach Mark Gottfried might have imagined. Paige, who scored 23 points in UNC's victory against N.C. State in Raleigh earlier this season – and 35 at N.C. State last season – finished with just seven points.
And Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, the sophomore forward, labored especially against BeeJay Anya, N.C. State's burly forward. Anya isn't known for his quickness, or his jumping ability, yet his wide wingspan created a considerable shadow that UNC couldn't escape in the post.
“He doesn't really jump as high, but his arms make up for it,” Johnson said. “So even if you do take a shot and you think you've got it he can get a finger tip on it because he does have big hands and he has long arms. So that really does affect you.”
The Tar Heels played two of their finest offensive games against Duke and Georgia Tech. Against N.C. State, they set records for futility on offense.
Their 18 first-half points were tied for the fewest ever they'd scored in a half under Williams. The 46 points they finished with were their fewest ever in the Smith Center.
“They took Marcus out a lot, until we really started setting screens for him,” said Justin Jackson, the freshman forward who led UNC with 16 points. “As far as low post, they were just pushing our big men out whenever they could.
“Obviously we had some good looks down there. But just as a team ... they were in to it the entire game.”
And yet the Tar Heels had a chance. They trailed by 16 points with about 16 minutes to play but, five minutes later, UNC had nearly come all the way back. N.C. State led by two at the time and the Smith Center crowd – which Williams had chided for being too quiet during the victory against Georgia Tech – was louder than it had been this season, and perhaps louder than it had been in several seasons.
UNC, though, never tied the game and never took the lead. The Tar Heels trailed by four with 2 ½ minutes to play after Paige made a 3 but then they committed turnovers on consecutive possessions, one by Paige, one by Meeks, and suddenly N.C. State had doubled its lead.
It was basically over then for UNC, a confounding defeat that erased the momentum it had built during the past week. The Tar Heels entered Tuesday night believing they were a different team, a better team, than the one who'd recently endured four defeats in five games.
They left the Smith Center Tuesday night wondering what had happened, trying to make sense of something none of them had ever experienced: a home loss against N.C. State.