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UNC men's basketball falls flat in ACC-opening loss to Georgia Tech

UNC head coach Roy Williams becomes upset during Saturday's game against Georgia Tech.
UNC head coach Roy Williams becomes upset during Saturday's game against Georgia Tech.

After a 75-63 loss to Georgia Tech on Saturday afternoon at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, the North Carolina men’s basketball team was struggling for answers.

The Yellow Jackets (9-4, 1-0 ACC) won with a 1-3-1 zone that North Carolina just couldn’t crack. A lot of credit for the upset should go to new Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner — who also served as his team’s sixth defender with his arms spread wide in proper defensive stance on the sidelines.

But the No. 9 Tar Heels (12-3, 0-1 ACC) also turned the ball over too many times and beat themselves in more ways than one. UNC couldn’t hit open shots, especially 3-pointers. The Tar Heels finished 5-of-26 shooting from deep, including a 2-for-9 performance from Joel Berry.

“It was not a good day for us, to say the least,” head coach Roy Williams said. “Twenty turnovers. It’s an ugly stat sheet, but from my side, it was an ugly game.”

Justin Jackson, who led UNC with 16 points, concurred.

“As a team we played awful," he said. "As individuals we played awful."

The Yellow Jackets weren’t expected to make much noise in the conference after going 21-15 last season and firing their old coach, Brian Gregory. Georgia Tech’s best win coming into Saturday was on the road against Virginia Commonwealth on Dec. 7th.

After the game, North Carolina’s players did their best to explain how the top-10 ranked Tar Heels could fall flat like this.

“I think they just came out with better effort and energy than we did,” Joel Berry said. “We thought that we were going to just come in here, because it’s Georgia Tech, but they did a great job of coming out with energy. And to them, it felt like a bigger game than it was to us.”

Also worrisome is the conference implications of the loss. Nonconference losses sting, but they are ultimately just for seeding. But in ACC play, wins are hard to come by and losses leave a mark.

“We are 0-1 in the conference, so if we don’t take teams more serious we are going to be 0-2, 0-3, 0-4 — and that’s not what we are trying to do,” Jackson said.

North Carolina tried and tried to find a spark that would ignite the Tar Heel offense. Early in the first half of Saturday's game, UNC shot a barrage of threes, but they didn’t fall.

“I think, early, we took too many outside shots,” Williams said. “We lost the confidence and it gave them more confidence. Their zone got stronger.”

Late in the second half, Williams elected to go small both to match Georgia Tech’s stretch-four, Quinton Stephens, and to try to create space and spark the offense. Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks usually benefit from the extra space provided by small ball, but even putting Hicks at the five didn’t work against the Yellow Jackets' zone.

“I’m trying to find something that worked, but I didn’t find the right ones," Williams said.

The necessary combination of ball movement, player movement and an attacking mindset just wasn't there for UNC on Saturday.

“Against that type of zone, you have to have some type of penetration, or you’ve got to have ball movement," Jackson said. "You can’t just pass it one time and be able to get it in the middle."

“And so we were kind of stagnant as far as the guards out there, and so it didn’t really open up the inside.”

The inside never opened up, the shots never fell and North Carolina lost its conference opener. The Tar Heels are a veteran group — they’ve been to a national championship and despite playing Saturday on the road, they had the support of a pro-UNC crowd in McCamish Pavilion. Still, the Tar Heels fell flat.

“We knew they would come out with a lot of energy; it’s their home," Jackson said. "But the crazy thing is, it felt like we had more fans than they did. And we still couldn’t come out and play as hard as we could."

"We got to look inside each other, look inside ourselves and figure out what we need to do better.”

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@bauman_john

sports@dailytarheel.com