James spoke about how that performance was a building block, another step in his progression as a player. But the distraught look in his eyes told a different story.
Coach Roy Williams perhaps verbalized the mood most clearly.
“I don’t care about learning experiences,” Williams said in his fiery post-game press conference. “Learning experiences — that’s for babies.”
Juxtaposed with a veteran-heavy N.C. State team, the Tar Heels looked especially young Saturday night.
Gone were the John Hensons and Tyler Zellers and most of the players that had won 13 straight games against their neighbors in the Triangle. And in their place was a group that, at least early on, seemed swallowed up in the chaotic frenzy of PNC Arena.
It was a struggle, particularly for freshman point guard Marcus Paige.
“I can learn a lot from watching the first 30 minutes of that film,” said Paige, who didn’t score until his ninth field-goal attempt with 8:04 left in the game.
“Just trying to keep our team under more composure in a hostile environment — that’s my job as a point guard. So I think I definitely can do better in that regard.”
But paradoxically, the Tar Heels flashed moments of growth, too.
James and his offensive flurry helped ignite UNC’s second-half run. When James Michael McAdoo exited the game with two quick fouls in the first two minutes of the game, Brice Johnson filled in admirably, scoring UNC’s first four points of the game and tallying a block. With 10 points, J.P. Tokoto matched his career high and helped UNC lock down on defense.
In total, the UNC bench scored 47 of the team’s 83 points, providing a lift for a starting five that struggled to keep pace with the surging Wolfpack.
“I feel like guys like Brice came in and helped,” McAdoo said. “Joel played phenomenal.
“But no matter what, we lost.”
And it was the sting of that ultimate result that hung over the locker room.
For James in particular, the knowledge that he had played well provided little solace. His team had just lost arguably the biggest game of his collegiate career. And so, understandably, he sat quietly in the corner, uneager to speak about what had just transpired.
In the corner opposite him sat a senior who understood the emotions his younger teammates were dealing with, who knows how to help them cope.
“Just talk to them,” senior guard Dexter Strickland said. “Just talk to Marcus, talk to Joel, say: ‘Don’t worry about it. We have another game. We have to put this behind us.’”
But by the time Strickland finished speaking with reporters, the chair across from him was already empty.
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