GREENSBORO — This wasn’t the team that put together a 12-0 win streak.
This wasn’t the team that defeated No. 7 Duke and slammed Wake Forest for a 33-point win.
And this wasn’t the team that’s stayed in the top-25 for the last three weeks after a seven-week hiatus.
No, Friday afternoon in Greensboro, a different North Carolina team showed up to the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament, one reminiscent of the teams that showed up in Birmingham, Ala. and at the Smith Center when Belmont came to town.
With the loss to No. 3-seed Duke ending their 12-game win streak nearly a week ago, it seemed as though the fourth-seeded Tar Heels could hit the reset button and go back to the original recipe for success.
But instead of rediscovering its winning ways, No. 15 UNC fell 80-75 to unranked fifth-seed Pittsburgh.
“It’s extremely disappointing to play the way we did the first 30, 32 minutes of the game,” coach Roy Williams said. “You have to congratulate Pittsburgh because they made us play that way. They were really effective. They had a great sense of urgency.”
For 30 minutes, UNC turned in a vintage UNC performance in the worst way possible — stagnant offense, turnovers galore, poor rebounding.
But like against the Blue Devils on Saturday, the Tar Heels found their rhythm late in the game. Again, UNC simply mounted its comeback too late.
Four clutch 3-pointers from guard Marcus Paige, who finished with 27 points, spurred the Tar Heels to 34-20 run in the final 7 minutes 22 seconds and whittled UNC’s deficit to a mere three points after being down as many as 18.
After shooting woes plagued UNC for long stretches in the openings of both halves — missing nine of its first 10 shots — suddenly the ball began to drop through the bottom of the net in the closing minutes.
In the last 7:22, UNC connected on 12 of its final 20 shots, grabbed 12 of its 35 rebounds and forced seven turnovers.
“It really shows what we can do and what we’re capable of and what we did out there in the last eight minutes is what we were doing during that 12-game win streak,” J.P. Tokoto said. “Just playing hard, not really caring who has the ball and who’s scoring, or anything like that, just making it a team effort.”
The early exit from the tournament gives UNC two extra days of prep time before heading to face an opponent at a destination unknown until Selection Sunday.
Those extra practices will be crucial for a team that Tokoto, who fouled out after scoring five points, said needs to get back to its intensity and habits from the 12-game win streak.
The solution to the Tar Heels’ problem is an easy fix, he said, something that can be remedied with an attitude change and film sessions.
“That 12-game win streak, we were looking at film, pointing out our mistakes and correcting them in practice,” Tokoto said. “Whatever you do in practice leads to the game. Just got to give a better effort in practice now, it’s one and done and it’s getting serious for us now and you can’t have the same mistakes twice.
“Get back in the flow, get our legs back and get after each other. Our practices haven’t been as great as we wanted them to be.”
The Tar Heels’ best basketball might be behind them — their recent slide suggests as much — but Paige isn’t worried about his team’s future.
“I think we were starting to play our best basketball kind of maybe seven or eight games into the streak and then we had a little bit of slippage in our overall intensity and making every play matter, and that showed up in the last couple of games more so than the games we were able to edge out and win,” Paige said.
“We’re still doing things well. I think our confidence isn’t all a loss. We just got to get back to go work and fine-tune some things and understand that you got to come ready to play against anyone for 40 minutes, not for 10.”
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