Two main reasons the North Carolina men's basketball team downsized its starting lineup were to make more 3-pointers, and improve on defending them.
On Saturday afternoon against N.C. State, No. 10 UNC opened with the same five small-ball starters for the sixth game in a row. But in a 95-91 overtime loss, it was outside shooting that doomed the Tar Heels (16-6, 5-4 ACC) on both ends of the floor.
The Wolfpack (15-7, 5-4 ACC) entered the contest second to last in the ACC in 3-point shooting, but caught fire against a porous UNC perimeter defense. N.C. State finished the game 15-30 from beyond the arc in its third win against a top-10 team this season under rookie head coach Kevin Keatts.
N.C. State got its rhythm early, breaking a 13-13 first-half tie with threes on consecutive possessions from Torin Dorn and Allerik Freeman.
Freeman consistently burned the Tar Heels’ defense through the day and finished the game a perfect 7-7 from deep en route to a career-high 29 points. He tied an ACC record for 3-pointers made without a miss, and became the first player to make more than five threes against UNC on 100-percent shooting.
Kenny Williams, one of UNC’s best perimeter defenders, knew that letting a shooter like Freeman heat up made the Tar Heels’ job significantly harder.
“Once a guy hits two you’ve got to start pressing up on him a little bit,” Williams said. “We gave him those step-in warm-up shots and he caught his rhythm and carried it through the whole game.”
But Freeman wasn’t the only member of the Wolfpack to make UNC pay from deep. Three other players hit multiple 3-pointers and four others scored in double digits.
Though Maye didn’t find himself guarding on the perimeter often, he noticed the Tar Heels consistently faced trouble with defending screens, leading to too many open looks for N.C. State.
“This was a tough test," he said. "We’re still working out some of the kinks with going to ball screens – especially with our small lineup sometimes.”
On offense, Maye was the only Tar Heel to make multiple 3-pointers. His 31 points led the Tar Heels, but aside from him and Theo Pinson – whose 22 points set a new career high – the UNC offense lacked its typical punch. North Carolina finished the game 4-19 from deep and saw no made threes from Williams, Cameron Johnson or Joel Berry II.
Johnson finished with 12 points but shot 0-4 on 3-point attempts, including a potential game-tying attempt he left short with just over a minute remaining in overtime. Despite the team’s struggles, he didn’t notice anything different about the Tar Heels’ approach Saturday.
“It’s just a matter of not making shots,” he said. “Everybody goes through it, and for all of us to go through it at the same time is a little rough.”
Three-pointers weren’t the only area where UNC came up short. The Tar Heels shot just 11-20 on free throws, and the misses came from their leaders. Maye made four of his eight, Pinson missed a pair in overtime, and Berry bricked the first of a one-and-one, which, fittingly, was followed by a game-tying Freeman three with five minutes remaining in the second half.
“We’ve been a good free throw shooting team when we get there,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “But we missed some opportunities today, there’s no question.”
Ultimately, the home loss to in-state rivals stings for the Tar Heels, but Williams’ team still found itself a successful close-out, made three or converted free throw away from escaping an upset in the Smith Center.
“We’re not ready to panic,” Williams said. “I’m not ready to panic or abandon ship.”
A 5-4 ACC record isn’t what Johnson, a graduate transfer from Pittsburgh, foresaw at the season’s beginning, but he knows January is no time to panic or give up on the season.
“We just have to defend,” Johnson said. “We have to defend better and play with more urgency. We just need to want it a little bit more and get it done.”