“Regardless of us having a veteran team or what, they were in the game and they felt like ‘We can play with them,’ so they just kept doing what they were doing ...” Berry said. “They just had the momentum, and it’s hard to get it back on your side when they’re just coming out there playing with more effort than you.”
Effort was the decisive factor according to the players and head coach Roy Williams. Sandwiched between a top-25 road win over Tennessee on Sunday and a matchup against Ohio State in New Orleans on Saturday, the common explanation from the Tar Heels was a lack of energy in the quintessential trap game.
“We got a big win on Sunday, and we are fat and happy and think that things are just going to be so easy for us ..." Roy Williams said. "It was a disgusting thing for me the entire game. My own self and the team."
Junior guard Kenny Williams credited Wofford for exploiting what he called a “lackluster, lackadaisical” performance from the Tar Heels.
“They came out ready to fight,” Williams said. “They brought the fight to us, and we didn't bring it back till our backs were against the wall, and at that point it was too late.”
North Carolina’s low energy was amplified after the game. Wofford’s celebration audibly carried down the hallway, a deserved outpouring for a program that had just recorded its first ever win versus a ranked opponent. In contrast, with their heads hung low, each Tar Heel seemed resigned to take the blame for the loss. Johnson, in particular, seemed dejected.
“This is my first game in a Carolina uniform," he said, "and for it to go like this, to lose, it hits me pretty hard."
The coaching staff had initially planned to leave Johnson in the game for no more than 10 minutes as he eases into the season after suffering a torn meniscus in his right knee in November. But little went according to plan during the game.
In the second half alone Johnson was utilized for eleven minutes in an effort to stem the bleeding. His 7-8 free throw shooting and single 3-pointer made his moments some of the most productive for the Tar Heels.
That was little consolation for the graduate transfer from Pittsburgh.
“I don't like to lose,” Johnson said. “This really hurts. To come back and to have this be my first game really hurts a little bit more.”
Cheerlessness crept through all the post-game interviews, as well as frustration over the attitude that had gotten the team to this point.
“We can't go out there and just play and think that teams are just going to bow down to us just because we are North Carolina,” Berry said.
The blame was personal for the celebrated senior.
“When things go like that I feel like it's all my fault,” Berry said. “Because I'm the leader of this team, I'm the veteran, and I know what it takes.”
The good news for the Tar Heels is that the bitter disappointment that surrounded the team Wednesday night won’t last forever.
As Berry pointed out, he knows what it takes, having been part of teams that have played in the past two national title games. And Berry, along with the other veterans, had already found the team's antidote by diagnosing the cause of Wednesday's loss. The Tar Heels didn’t attribute their downfall to a lack of talent or cohesion: the weakness they kept admitting was a lack of energy.
Despite the darkness of defeat, if this prognosis is more than just a shortsighted comfort, there may be reason for hope on the horizon.
Because if all it takes to right the wrongs of Wednesday night is a bit more energy from some of North Carolina’s tried and true stars, along with the help from a new luminary in Johnson, Roy Williams’ team should have all of its lights shining again soon.