Inside a quiet North Carolina locker room on Saturday night, Brice Johnson tied his tie in silence, alone in a corner. Usually one of the Tar Heels' most loquacious players, he had little to say after an 84-82 defeat against Texas.
He said he couldn't remember how he found himself in foul trouble and that he couldn't recall the details of when he committed his third foul, which came 53 seconds after he reentered the game in the first half after having picked up his second foul.
“It's really frustrating,” said Johnson, who played 20 minutes -- only five in the first half. “I want to be able to stay in there and help my teammates out. But I can't put myself in that kind of situation. That's something I've got to work on.”
He had said these kinds of things before after these kinds of losses – a defeat that could have easily been a victory if not for one play here, one mistake there. The Tar Heels on Saturday at Texas lost when Javan Felix, the Longhorns' senior guard, made a shot from the right side as time expired.
His teammates behind him began to celebrate and the sold-out crowd at the Erwin Center roared and Shaka Smart, Texas' first-year coach, began to sense the thrill of his first marquee victory at his new school. The officials gathered to review the play, make sure Felix released it in time, and he did.
The game ended in that instant, Texas the victor after having made one more play. But the No. 3 Tar Heels (7-2) didn't lose it then, in that second, as much as they lost it along the way, amid all “the little things” they were left to talk about afterward.
Those included Johnson's foul trouble, which threw coach Roy Williams' game plan into flux during the first half. And UNC's inability to come up with a defensive stop late. And it included, most of all, the rebounding, which was strangely dreadful for UNC given numbers entering Saturday.
The Tar Heels arrived in Austin ranked 10th nationally rebound margin, finishing games, on average, with 12.5 more rebounds than their opponents. Texas (6-3) ranked 195th nationally in rebounding margin, and entering Saturday had essentially as many rebounds as its opponents.
Through 40 minutes on Saturday, though, Texas put on the kind of rebounding exhibition that UNC often gives, but rarely receives. The Longhorns finished with nine more rebounds than the Tar Heels, and Texas rebounded 16 of its missed shots – including one that set up Felix's game-winner.
Among all the numbers that helped tell the story on Saturday – field goal percentage and fast break points and points in the paint – the ones that best explained the outcome were these: Texas outscored UNC 21-7 in second-chance points.
“The biggest thing is just rebounding the basketball, guys,” Williams said. “You can't rebound the ball like that and expect to win against good teams.”
Marcus Paige, UNC's senior guard, put it another way: “When it comes to the backboards,” he said, “it's about effort, hustle, and they got us on the boards. They got us on the boards.”
He said it twice, for emphasis. The final play of the game was illustrative of UNC's rebounding problems.
After Johnson tied the game at 82 with a short jump shot with eight seconds to play, Texas guard Isaiah Taylor attempted a 3-pointer from the left wing.
“I'm not trying to say anything about it but it missed badly,” Williams said. “And so it bounces out long. But still, we should have had somebody there.”
UNC might have had somebody there. Paige was in position for the rebound but Connor Lammert, the Longhorns' aggressive forward, sprinted in and collided with Paige, sending him falling out of bounds. The ball fell into Felix's hands, and he released the shot just before time expired.
Lammert appeared to get away with a push. He was a disruptive force throughout.
“He's a perimeter four guy,” Paige said, referring to Lammert's position as a power forward. “But he always gets free runs to the board, from the 3-point line.”
Lammert finished with only four rebounds – Cameron Ridley, the senior center, led Texas with 13 – but Lammert frustrated UNC so much that, at one point in the second half Kennedy Meeks, the junior forward, scolded Isaiah Hicks after a play for allowing Lammert to pass him.
“I was just telling him to get a body on Lammert,” Meeks said, “Because he always attacks the basket.”
That was the difference. Texas attacked. UNC sometimes didn't.
Yet the Tar Heels still had chances. They led by three after Hicks' three-point play with about four minutes remaining – a play that came off of Hicks' first rebound of the game – and UNC led by two after a Paige layup with three minutes left.
Each time, Texas responded. The Longhorns scored on their final six possessions.
But, Williams said, “I think we scored on most of those, as well.”
Williams appeared disappointed afterward but mellow, too. He called it a “high-level game,” and liked that his team shot 52 percent from the field, and that it kept scoring late in a game that went back and forth and back again until the final possession.
Ultimately, though, his message afterward to his team was one, again, about “little things,” he said.
Hicks, who played 23 minutes amid Johnson's foul trouble, spoke several times of those things afterward, saying they went the Longhorns' way.
“So they came out on top,” he said.
Meeks spoke of those little things, too. And in his own way, so did Paige. Entering the season, UNC believed it was ready to stop allowing the little things to cost it victories. But on Saturday it was a familiar story with an unfamiliar reaction from Williams, who sometimes has sounded angrier after victories than he did after the defeat at Texas.
“His tone doesn't necessarily dictate how disappointed he is,” Paige said. “He's mad. And we're all upset. We felt like we should have won this game.”