Garrison Brooks has spoken with reporters after virtually every UNC home game for good reason.
The junior forward is an easy pick to represent the program. He’s a starter. A veteran. Someone who’s analytical and thoughtful in conversation. And with a 28 points-per-game average over his last two, perhaps now the best (healthy) offensive and defensive threat on this 2019-20 roster.
On Wednesday night, though, after a 73-65 loss to Pittsburgh at the Smith Center, Brooks struck a different tone in a brief postgame interview, which lasted just around two minutes.
What went wrong? “A lot of miscommunications.”
The second-half collapse? “Pittsburgh made plays down the stretch.”
The message among players afterward? “Nah, we didn’t say anything.”
His frustration shone through. He was done sugarcoating. He was visibly upset. Could you blame him?
If any of UNC’s seven losses this season truly cast a shadow of doubt on the team’s NCAA Tournament chances, it was this one. Michigan, Ohio State, Gonzaga and Virginia are all ranked teams. An optimist could twist Wofford into a feel-out game, Cole Anthony's first on the sideline, and Georgia Tech into one of those early blips ACC teams so often have when conference play begins.
But now, reality has set in.
North Carolina is 8-7, 1-3 in the ACC and 4-4 at home. Head coach Roy Williams is still next to Dean Smith on the NCAA’s all-time Division I wins list, after a brief night of jubilation last Monday when he tied his mentor at 879. Clemson is in town Saturday, and The Streak is very much at stake.
“I think this one definitely hurts more,” senior Brandon Robinson said.
It’s the way this one was lost that had the Smith Center moving in a collective trudge around 10 p.m. Williams said the two practices between the loss to the Yellow Jackets — a game in which UNC’s defense played matador — had been productive.
And that effort showed early on. UNC trapped Pittsburgh’s ballhandlers off pick and rolls and forced a few turnovers. Andrew Platek led a few timely fast breaks. Players dove for loose balls and hit the floor at such speed you could hear the thump — comfortably — from the upper-section media seating.
At halftime, the Tar Heels were up 37-28. Brooks and first-year Armando Bacot were warming up offensively, and UNC’s defense had been excellent: Pittsburgh made just nine of 28 field goals and one of 10 3-point attempts. It wasn’t perfect, but it was progress.
Then, the wheels fell off.
"I'd like to come up with something witty, something different, but I don't have it,” Williams said. “Somehow, somehow, we've got to figure out how to stop the bleeding and start playing better.”
Pittsburgh made shot after shot — 3-pointer after 3-pointer, more specifically — en route to shooting 14 of 24 over the next 20 minutes. From deep, the Panthers were an even hotter eight of 12.
UNC’s offense responded at times. But head coach Jeff Capel and company gradually drained the life out of a cautiously optimistic crowd — especially so with a late 13-3 run that gave Pittsburgh a 64-56 lead and, eventually, its first ever win in Chapel Hill in eight tries.
Fans were eventually headed for the exits early (again) after Jeremiah Francis missed an open 3-pointer that would have cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 67-66 with about a minute left.
“This is something I’m not used to,” Bacot said. “Or Coach. Anyone in the program isn't really used to it. It’s North Carolina basketball.”
In a fitting end to another night that left the Tar Heels without answers, and Williams without Win No. 880, he did end up evoking Smith in his postgame news conference. Just not in the way anyone expected he would after tying the late coach in victories last Monday.
“Guys, it's not a pleasant time,” he said as he left the podium. “Coach Smith once told me his biggest worry about me is how hard I took the losses as an assistant. Said it's much harder as a head coach.”
Williams paused, then continued: “And he's right.”