If you’re still going off on Carolina’s embarrassing ouster from the ACC Tournament, ask yourself this question: How the hell did this team win 23 games?
In a performance that was an apt summation of this season, the Tar Heels could not score and did not win the defensive and rebounding battles. That’s a recipe for disaster for this UNC team, and if not for a gutty, full-court pressing effort over the last seven minutes the game would have been exactly what it was – a 20-point blowout.
When Marcus Paige tried to play his second half first and missed two open three-pointers and Leslie McDonald air-balled his first trey, Carolina was on the way to a 1-for-11 start from the floor. Included in that pitiful span were charges by McDonald and James Michael McAdoo, a one-foot air ball by Kennedy Meeks and a driving layup by J.P. Tokoto that hit the bottom of the rim.
All that ineptitude coupled with a 17-2 Pitt run had the Heels down by 18 points. They cut the deficit to 10 by halftime and were lucky to be within reach of the rugged Panthers, interlopers from the Big East.
The Heels lost their momentum at halftime, and after Pitt’s 20-10 run at mid-second half opened up a 20-point advantage you knew they were goners along with a fourth seed in the NCAA Tournament that, in all likelihood, would have sent them to Raleigh for their first two games of the Big Dance. Now, it could be anywhere from Buffalo to Spokane, so either way, pack a raincoat.
The outcome wasn’t all that surprising when you consider Pitt’s defense wouldn’t let Paige get uncorked until the last seven minutes, when UNC’s mighty-mite scored 14 of his 20 second-half points, and the only Tar Heel to make more shots than he missed was Brice Johnson (8-9).
Give Carolina credit for a system and tradition that does not allow any quit and almost always produces a run no matter how high the hill. But this rally cost the Tar Heels Paige, Tokoto and McDonald, who all fouled out, including Leslie with no points from the supposed second-best shooter on the team.
Pitt shot 52 percent and had seven more offensive rebounds. Only panicky turnovers against Carolina’s press and poor free-throw shooting made the game as close as it was, but the real difference remains that the Tar Heels have only one reliable scorer.
Although they get the ball into position for others to score, their big men can’t finish at the basket – often missing badly – and no one else but Paige can hit an outside shot with any consistency, notably making all four of UNC’s three-pointers.
McAdoo had a solid game with 15 points and 7 rebounds (7 more than he had at Duke), but he’s not beating anyone by himself. And Johnson’s 16 were mostly on garbage or great moves around the basket. Pitt had the power game on this day, led by center Talib Zanna with 19 points and 21 rebounds.
In many ways, the Heels are playing with house money. Their season was salvaged with that 12-game winning streak at an advantageous stage of the schedule. Of Clemson, Georgia Tech, N.C. State (twice), Maryland, Notre Dame (twice), Duke, Pittsburgh, Florida State, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, only two of those teams were ranked (Duke, Pitt), and both wins were at home.
Another great coaching job by Roy Williams, the emergence of Paige as an All-American and Tokoto with literally lots of upside will be a great foundation for next season, whether or not McAdoo returns for his senior year. Relying mostly on defense and rebounding, the Tar Heels need more scoring, and that is supposedly on the way with incoming 5-star recruits Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson. Plus, Meeks and Isaiah Hicks have great skills once they learn how to use them on the college level.
Making the Sweet Sixteen for this club would be like cutting down the nets in Dallas, but the Tar Heels probably lost their projected No. 4 seed and two games at the PNC Arena in Raleigh. Wherever and whoever they play, they will have to get back on the boards and down on defense if they have any prayer of advancing.
Twenty-three wins WITH P.J. Hairston would have been a pretty good season. Without him, it’s darn near an unbelievable one.