Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse.
Tuesday brought some new lows to the Carolina basketball season, perilously close to spinning out of control. The Tar Heels lost their third straight game for the first time in four years and lost two players indefinitely.
Their second-half comeback at Clemson was thrilling, and it showed this UNC edition still has a lot of heart. But after erasing all of a 16-point halftime deficit, the team made the same critical mistakes that reminded us of just how we got in this rut. More than just another unfortunate turn, this third loss in a row broke what was previously a 10-game winning streak against the Tigers.
That streak is important to remember, because Clemson was on the verge of folding like it has before, with the all-time record against Carolina standing at 20-132. The Heels came roaring back behind Joel Berry and Cameron Johnson – and without the injured Theo Pinson, the suspended Jalek Felton and MIA Luke Maye, the ACC’s fourth-leading scorer who played 34 minutes with 4 points.
But they gave up a fifteenth three-pointer for the second straight game – that has to be some kind of record – and missed a critical box out that resulted in Clemson’s fifteenth offensive rebound and second-chance bucket that let an improbable victory slip away. While Roy Williams continues to say what a sorry coach he is to take the pressure off his players, he definitely should have taken a time out when the offense stagnated on a late possession that result in a hurried shot.
So, the ACC record is 5-5, the national ranking is all but gone and Carolina finds itself on the improbable NCAA tournament bubble after a 16-4 start to the season. First back-up point guard Felton has been suspended by the university pending investigation into an alleged sexual incident; second back-up point guard Seventh Woods is still injured and third back-up point guard Pinson left the game after a nasty fall. Pinson was slated to play some point, 2-guard, small forward and 4-man before going down hard on his lower back and left shoulder.
We are at a fork with one arrow pointing toward the 2010 season, when the Tar Heels were 12-4 and ranked No. 9, then lost 10 of their next 12 games and went to the NIT. Fortunately, last-place Pitt is town Saturday before Duke, N.C. State and Notre Dame over a murderous five-day stretch.
Which fork in the road will this hard-luck, soft-on-defense team take?