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The Daily Tar Heel

No. 9 UNC men's basketball falls to Georgia Tech, 75-63, in first ACC matchup

ATLANTA — The No. 9 North Carolina men's basketball team lost 75-63 to Georgia Tech on Saturday afternoon in Atlanta.

What happened?

The Tar Heels’ home conference opener is officially Jan. 7 against N.C. State, but Saturday afternoon’s joust was the unofficial start. Tar Heel fans packed the McCamish Pavilion and made most of the noise until the end. The home court feel of the game didn’t translate to the court, though, as the Tar Heels got off to a slow start.

At the half, UNC (12-3, 0-1 ACC) was up 32-29. The 3-point lead was small but improbable given how poorly the Tar Heels played against Georgia Tech (9-4, 1-0 ACC). Joel Berry tallied eight points and Kennedy Meeks grabbed 11 rebounds, but the offense looked out of sync. North Carolina shot 12-for-36 from the field and 3-for-15 from the 3-point line. The Tar Heels survived the half by dominating on the glass, grabbing 11 offensive boards and outrebounding the Yellow Jackets, 29-14.

In the second half, Georgia Tech jumped out to a 38-34. The Yellow Jackets' home fans came alive while UNC walked around dejectedly, trying to figure out how to swing the game back in its favor.

The Tar Heels went small to try and get something going on offense. Even that didn’t work. After two Georgia Tech free throws, North Carolina was down 55-49. The UNC fans in attendance did their part, making noise and chanting “defense” louder than their Georgia Tech counterparts.

North Carolina trapped, played zone and went small with Jackson at the four all in the attempt to find some spark to climb back into the game. With 2:40 left, they were down 63-55 after two straight Georgia Tech dunks.

The comeback wasn’t meant to be. The Yellow Jacket offense sputtered to life late in the second half, dunking and shooting its way to a 71-59 lead with a minute remaining en route to a 75-63 win.

The Yellow Jacket players took a victory lap around their home stadium following the game. Despite the long odds pregame and the Tar Heel blue fans outnumbering the yellow ones, Georgia Tech defended its home court.

Who stood out?

After scoring 28 points against Monmouth on Wednesday, Justin Jackson struggled to find his shots and put the ball in the basket against Georgia Tech’s zone. In theory, Jackson’s 3-point shot would be an asset as a zone-busting tool. But he struggled. Jackson would finish with 16, but it was too little, too late for the Tar Heel offense.

Nate Britt picked up the slack. His underrated defensive effort and ability translated into a couple of fast break baskets for the Tar Heels, and his jump shooting helped the Tar Heels squeeze a couple of points out of an otherwise lifeless halfcourt offense in the second half. Britt finished with 13 points.

When was it decided?

With 1:46 left, and UNC down 66-57, it started to set in that North Carolina could lose its conference opener. The Tar Heel bench sat silently, with Kennedy Meeks and Brandon Robinson covering their heads in their towels. Roy Williams stood next to his bench, arms crossed as usual.

After a Justin Jackson basket that cut Georgia Tech’s lead to eight, head coach Roy Williams called a timeout, maybe the biggest sign of the day that something was awry. An Isaiah Hicks foul, and two Josh Heath free throws, sealed it.

Why does it matter?

Georgia Tech was the Tar Heels’ first conference matchup this season in the ACC. In such a tight and talented league, every game matters. North Carolina starts 2017 conference play with a loss, and the schedule offers little respite.

North Carolina also was reminded that each conference game is a battle. After mostly cruising against Northern Iowa and Monmouth the last two weeks, UNC got a wakeup call that ACC play is here. The Tar Heels have a somewhat soft start to conference play, but it was clear today that they were not ready — regardless of opponent.

Maybe most concerning is the way they lost. North Carolina did not play well, shooting 32 percent from the field with over 20 turnovers. Some soul searching, especially from North Carolina’s stars like Joel Berry and Justin Jackson, is in order.

Where do they play next?

North Carolina heads back on the road to face Clemson on Tuesday at 7 p.m. for the second conference game of the season. 

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