There weren’t as many tears inside the North Carolina locker room this time, and the sadness, the hurt, were more muted than when UNC ended its season a year ago. There was, mostly, a sense the Tar Heels had been here before – close but far.
Their season ended Thursday night with a 79-72 loss against Wisconsin in an NCAA tournament West Region semifinal, and it ended the way so many other games had for UNC this season. Once again, the Tar Heels couldn’t hold a second-half lead.
Once again, they retreated to their locker room left to think what might have been if not for a lapse here or a lapse there, or what could have been had they made just another play or two, or come up with a defensive stop. Hadn’t UNC been through this before?
Hadn’t that, in some ways, been the theme of its season? UNC led Wisconsin by seven points with about 11 minutes to play, and it held its final lead – of the game, of the season – with about 61/2 minutes to play.
And so the Tar Heels, the No. 4 seed in the West, were in position to beat top-seeded Wisconsin. And even after the Badgers showed their might and reeled off a game-changing 9-0 run, even after Wisconsin led by four with 69 seconds left, UNC still had a chance.
It always does, it seems, with junior guard Marcus Paige. His 3-pointer cut the Badgers’ lead to 71-70 with 55 seconds to play. The Tar Heels came no closer, though.
From there they missed free throws and couldn’t force the turnover that might have kept their season alive. And so they lost the way they often have: after leading, and then having a chance late only to watch that chance evaporate amid more futility.
Had this defeat been a fitting end to the season? Had it been emblematic, in some ways, of the Tar Heels’ problems the past several months. Paige thought about it and said, “As much as it hurts to say, that does ring true.”
He went on.
“Because we have the talent, we have the pieces, we have the roster, we have the firepower,” said Paige, who finished with 12 points, six of them coming on 3-pointers in the final two minutes. “But all year, whether it was the Duke game at Cameron, whether it was closing teams out, whether it was N.C. State at home, just lack of focus.
“We just were missing that extra edge, that toughness to take care of the ball, to make the crucial play.”
This wasn’t like the collapse that UNC endured in a loss at Louisville, where it led by 18 points early in the second half. It was like what happened at Duke, where UNC led by 10 points with less than four minutes to play and lost there, too.
In those games, the Tar Heels fell apart amid a torrent of mistakes: turnovers, possessions that ended in poor shots, defensive breakdowns. On Thursday night UNC didn’t make the necessary plays during the final 10 minutes, but more than that, Wisconsin proved its might as a national championship contender.
The Badgers’ decisive 9-0 run began with a 3-pointer from Frank Kaminsky, a 7-foot center who’s among the favorites to win national player of the year honors. After a UNC miss, Wisconsin took a 61-60 lead on a layup. The Badgers never trailed again.
“You have to congratulate Wisconsin,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.
It was his standard opening line after a loss, but it came with a twist.
“I’m tired of congratulating people,” he said. “I feel like I’ve done that more this year than I’ve felt good about, myself. But they’re really, really tough kids.”
The Badgers played like it Thursday. And so did UNC, though not when it mattered most.
The Tar Heels, beset once again by foul trouble, did a lot of things they wanted to against Wisconsin, which entered Thursday as the slowest-paced team remaining in the tournament field. UNC forced a quicker pace when it could and scored 10 fast break points.
In the first half, at least, the Tar Heels limited Kaminsky, who scored 15 of his 19 points in the second half. And overall defensively, UNC was as active as it had been this season. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said he was surprised by how much the Tar Heels disrupted Wisconsin’s passing lanes.
“I feel like overall, defensively, it was one of the best games we’ve had,” said Justin Jackson, the freshman forward who along with Brice Johnson led the Tar Heels with 15 points. ”We had some lapses, but I can’t complain about the way we played defense.”
UNC gave itself a chance. More than a chance, given it led by seven with 11 minutes to play. Not long after, though, the Badgers turned the game. There was a 3-pointer, followed by a 3-point play to cut UNC’s lead to one.
It was the first of three times Wisconsin cut UNC’s lead to a point in the second half, and after the third time, the Badgers finally broke through. They finished the game strong and continued their season while UNC’s ended like so many of its other defeats.