UNC gears for NCAA Tournament after ACC loss

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Marcus Paige drives to the basket. He finished with 27 points. UNC lost to Pittsburgh 80-75 in the ACC Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum.

In one corner of the Greensboro Coliseum locker room sat Brice Johnson, a sophomore forward and — in some ways — North Carolina’s emotional barometer.

His ferocious, gut-clearing screams after dunks are his trademark. And after losses, his outward disappointment is equally inescapabale. Don’t tell him that the ACC Tournament doesn’t matter, that UNC would go on to earn an NCAA Tournament bid regardless — a No. 6 seed in the East Region, as decided by the selection committee Sunday night.

“We all want to win,” he said after fourth-seeded UNC fell to fifth-seeded Pittsburgh 80-75 in the ACC tournament quarterfinals Friday. “We’re not just going to come here and lay down and not play.”

The big dance at a glance

6
UNC’s tournament seed this year

8
UNC’s tournament seed last year

23-9
UNC’s record this year

45
All-time NCAA tourney appearances

18
Final Fours — more than any other school

3
Final Fours under Roy Williams

62
NCAA Tournament wins for Williams

A few feet away from Johnson stood redshirt senior Leslie McDonald, fastening a red tie. He had played poorly Friday — fouling out with zero points to his name — but, then again, no one else had played particularly well, minus a last-minute 3-point barrage from point guard Marcus Paige.

McDonald has been through this before — the disappointment and, then later, the rebirth. The Tar Heels (23-9) will have the chance to redeem themselves Friday in San Antonio, taking on No. 11-seed Providence (23-11).

McDonald’s eyes are already looking forward — they have been since UNC fell to the Panthers three days ago.

“Anytime you have a tournament that has a No. 1 champion, you want to be that No. 1 champion,” McDonald said Friday. “At the same time, there’s been times and there have been teams where we haven’t accomplished that goal, but we’re still able to prevail in the NCAA Tournament.

“The ACC is great, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to get the big ‘ship.”

To have a chance at that national championship, though, UNC will need to reverse its late-season stumbles. After winning 12 games in a row, the Tar Heels have dropped their last two — a 93-81 loss at Duke preceeding their ACC tournament loss to Pittsburgh.

In both contests, UNC lacked the defensive intensity and sharpness it had displayed during its winning streak. At the boards, especially, UNC was outmatched, putting up just 20 against Duke and allowing 21 to Pittsburgh’s Talib Zanna alone.

“We have had some outstanding wins this year, both in and out of league play, over teams that received some very high seeds in the field, so we know we are capable,” said coach Roy Williams in a statement. “But we must play better than we have over the last two weeks if we want to reach our big-time dreams.”

That also means swallowing the disappointment from an early ACC tournament exit — an easier task for some on the team than others.

“Most of the passionate players are the ones who are taking it hard, so if they’re taking it hard, that’s a good thing,” McDonald said.

“I expect them to come in practice in the next couple of days hungry. But we’ll see. This gives us a new opportunity of life.

“We’re not falling down. We’re not flopping out yet. We’ll be ready for the NCAA Tournament.”

sports@dailytarheel.com

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