"We definitely (freaked out)," forward Justin Pierce said. "I think everyone was kinda shocked, and we started taking horrible shots. We started turning the ball over."
North Carolina sank seven of its last eight shots to end the half, but still trailed 47-27 at the break to mark UNC's largest halftime deficit ever in the Smith Center. On a night when Roy Williams could have passed his mentor in all-time wins, the head coach admitted he had a bad feeling before the game even started: "I said something to our staff [about], 'I don't like our attitude.'"
"I thought we were ready to play," senior guard Brandon Robinson says. "But Coach knows us better than we know ourselves sometimes, so if he felt that way, then we weren't ready."
The start of the second half was a different story — the Tar Heels ripped off a 16-5 run to cut the deficit to nine — but UNC was never able to clean up the mess from the first 20 minutes. Every time the lead was threatened, GT's Moses Wright (22 points) or Jose Alvarado (25 points, 4-6 from 3-point range) were there for a timely bucket. It was the kind of shotmaking UNC has sorely lacked all season, but especially sans Anthony.
"We knew Carolina was gonna come out in the second half, we knew the crowd was gonna be loud, but we managed ourselves well," Pastner said. "...as a coach, you're sick to your stomach inside because you can see it dwindling down a little bit, but our guards really managed the game during that time period."
It's a small miracle that UNC was able to put up 83 points, as eight minutes into the game the team was literally on pace for a 10-point outing. The only Tar Heel who approached a complete game was Brooks, who had 35 points and 11 rebounds. ("I don't want to talk about it," he said when asked about his career night.) Forget the game as a whole: a dry stretch like the one the Tar Heels had is enough for a recalibration of expectations.
"I think it's definitely a reality check for all of us," Pierce said. "I've never been to the NCAA Tournament, and I'm not taking it for granted just because I'm at Carolina that we're gonna make the NCAA Tournament. I think people gotta freaking realize that just because we're North Carolina we're not gonna be a shoo-in...I'm a senior, I've never made the tournament, and I would be devastated if I don't make the tournament."
The Tar Heels showed flashes of a good team in the second half, with an even 20-40 from the field in the period, as well as five triples. But without a proven collection of scorers, and with Anthony still sidelined for at least the next few games, the remainder of the Tar Heels' season could end up feeling as long as their first-half drought Saturday night.
"The season's winding down. We're in January already," Pierce said. "From now on, every game is do or die."
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