North Carolina found itself looking for something it often has in recent years, something it has shown in flashes, here and there, but something that went missing, again, during an 80-76 defeat at Notre Dame on Saturday.
The No. 2 Tar Heels (19-4, 8-2 ACC) were looking for it often in the second half, while the Fighting Irish (16-7, 7-4) continued to chip away at a UNC lead that had once been 15 points strong. UNC was looking for it in the final moments, when it was clinging to hope that didn't evaporate until the final seconds.
The Tar Heels looked for it when they failed to grasp a loose ball or secure a rebound or after a turnover. They looked for it when they couldn't force turnovers. It was toughness, Brice Johnson, the senior forward, said afterward.
That's what went missing, again. That's what UNC was trying to find.
“We just didn't play tough enough today,” Johnson said. “They out-toughed us.”
He said it on Saturday night while sitting in front of his locker inside a quiet and emptying Tar Heels' locker room but he'd said similar things at times earlier this season and plenty of times last season and plenty of times the season before that. Toughness, or a lack of it, has been something Johnson, his teammates and coach Roy Williams have spoken plenty about the past few seasons.
And there Williams was again on Saturday, bringing up that familiar theme. Only Williams substituted “intensity” for “toughness.” Different word but same idea.
“Their coach did a heck of a lot better job of getting his guys to play with a great deal of intensity than I did,” Williams said, speaking of Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. “... I've got to do a heck of a lot better job of getting my club to play with a lot more intensity than we did.”
The lack of toughness or intensity of any other synonym was especially frustrating for Williams and his players because they'd focused on the same issue after a 71-65 defeat at Louisville on Monday night. There, the Cardinals held UNC to a season-low 34.5 percent shooting and the Tar Heels wilted in the second half of an intense, physical game.
And then it happened again on Saturday. Now UNC has lost two consecutive games after winning its first eight in conference play. Those eight victories, Williams acknowledged during that winning streak, came against some of the ACC's less formidable teams.
Which means the Tar Heels are off to an 0-2 start against the most difficult portion of its conference schedule. UNC, at least, will get something of a reprieve on Tuesday night at Boston College, which is laboring its way through a season that could be historically bad for an ACC team.
But greater challenges are coming for UNC: against Pittsburgh, Duke, Miami, at Virginia. Those games, like the one on Saturday and like the one on Monday at Louisville will test the Tar Heels' ability to find what they've been lacking – that intangible toughness.
For a little while on Saturday it looked like it might not need all that much of it. The Tar Heels led 37-22 with about 2 ½ minutes to play before halftime and Marcus Paige, who'd been mired in the most difficult shooting slump of his time at UNC, was playing like his old self.
He made four 3-pointers in the first half – as many as he'd made in the previous five games combined – and finished with a team-high 21 points. He finished with five 3s, as many as he'd made in the Tar Heels' past six games.
But they wasted Paige's resurgence with an inability to counter Notre Dame's second half adjustments. An inability to force turnovers – the Fighting Irish outscored UNC 19-0 in points off of turnovers – hurt UNC, too, as did its propensity to foul and its failure to keep Notre Dame from second-chance points.
The Fighting Irish in the second spaced UNC out and beat the Tar Heels with dribble penetration.
“That's been a weakness of ours in the past and it was today,” Paige said. “We've got to be able to cover the ball, you know. If they get in the paint, it breaks down box-outs, it breaks down defensive rotations. They got 3s. That's how they got 3s in the second half.
“That's how they got all the second-chance points.”
Early in the second half UNC still found itself in good shape. It led by 10 points with 17 minutes to play.
Notre Dame kept chipping away, though, and the sold-out Joyce Center grew louder and louder. Notre Dame eventually tied it with 12 ½ minutes to play, took its first lead of the second half with about 9 ½ minutes to play and took the lead for good a few minutes after that.
From there the Tar Heels were playing catch up after having had the game in control not long before halftime. At Louisville earlier in the week the game slipped away from the Tar Heels amid different circumstances. The theme was the same, though, amid another defeat on Saturday.
Asked where the Tar Heels could find toughness Johnson, who finished with 14 points, said, “You can't really find it.”
“It's in everybody,” he said.
Yet it wasn't inside he and his teammates when they needed it most.
“I've got a wonderful bunch of kids,” Williams said. “But we've got to decide that we want to compete when it's tough, not just when it's easy.”