BLACKSBURG, Va. — First, there was the Brandon Robinson news.
An hour and a half before tipoff, UNC announced the guard would be out against Virginia Tech due to "persistent neck pain," stemming from a car accident hours after a game against Clemson.
The fact that the Tar Heels would be without their lone contributing senior should have served as the worst of omens.
North Carolina fell to the Hokies in double overtime Wednesday night, 79-77, resulting in a sixth straight ACC loss and leaving UNC's other veteran leaders searching for answers in an 8-10 season that's becoming historic for all the wrong reasons.
"It sucks, to be honest," junior guard Andrew Platek said. "I was talking to my mom about this: I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team with a losing record in my life. It’s definitely different, especially at this level.”
A five-game slide has seen the Tar Heels lose in a variety of ways, but perhaps none hurt more than the most recent, in which they had not one, but two extra periods to give head coach Roy Williams his 880th career win.
Instead, the Hall of Famer remains stuck: at 879, next to his mentor Dean Smith, and in the midst of a trying season with a limited roster, one that he admitted was the least talented of his Chapel Hill tenure.
“I think we’ve been getting better, but guys, young kids need to be rewarded," he said. "It’s been difficult for this club to be rewarded.”
They had their chances. Sophomore guard Leaky Black was off on a game-winning 3-point attempt at the end of the first overtime. Before that, junior forward Garrison Brooks missed a turnaround jumper at the buzzer that would have won the game in regulation.
“Gotta make it," Brooks said simply. He also had game-highs of 28 points and 13 rebounds, though you wouldn't have guessed it by talking it to him. That seemed to be the furthest thing from his mind.
“He’s taking it more to heart than the rest of them because he’s invested," Williams said. "He’s been here three years.”
And though teammates jumped at the chance to praise the veteran big man — “Garrison played his ass off," Platek said — it's clear that Brooks is still working out some important kinks. On the court, for one, he likely never expected to become North Carolina's offensive load-bearer. Yet with Robinson out and first-year guard Cole Anthony still sidelined, there Brooks was, slapping up 15 in the first half and adding a team-high six assists on the night.
But off the court, too, he's in a transitional phase: figuring out how to keep morale high in what can be safely described as trying times for North Carolina basketball. It's something he didn't have to deal with as an underclassman, when UNC went a combined 55-18 and Brooks deferred to veteran leaders whom he's now trying to imitate.
“Me seeing them do that makes me want to do it," he told the DTH. "I don't wanna be remembered as one of those guys who couldn’t lead his team to make plays at the end. I wanna be remembered as one of those guys like Kenny (Williams), Luke (Maye), that can convince guys to always play hard and work like no other.”
“That’s my next big challenge: lead vocally," he continued. "Encourage our guys, keep them involved in the game.”
According to Platek, staying encouraged is something this team has had to learn; again, a different challenge after two years that were comparatively peachy keen.
“We can’t feel sorry for ourselves, and I think that’s the main thing we were struggling with in the past (this season)," he said. "But now we’re coming into every game saying, ‘We can beat every team in the league.’”
It wasn't enough on Wednesday night, but without Robinson and Anthony, it was close. Who knows what these Tar Heels look like at full strength — for now, though, there are more pressing concerns. UNC needs a win, Brooks said, "like a fish needs water."
“We have to keep playing hard. We’re right there, in every game," he said. "We’re good enough. I think we can do it. A few more plays and we’re there.”
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