GREENSBORO, N.C. — The Tar Heels of January and February showed up in March.
In any other year for the longtime powerhouse that is North Carolina men’s basketball, that means, at worst, a slightly lower NCAA Tournament seed. But in this tumultuous 2019-20 season, reverting to those early conference-play struggles spelled the flat-out end of the Tar Heels’ season.
In an 81-53 loss to Syracuse in the second round of the ACC Tournament, everything that plagued UNC at times this year was glaring.
Inconsistent shooting? Against the Orange’s 2-3 zone, North Carolina went 0-7 from behind the arc in the first half and finished 2-16 for its third worst 3-point percentage (12.5) of the season.
Giving up crippling runs? No. 14 seed UNC trailed just 28-22 before allowing Syracuse to rip off a demoralizing 15-0 run to end the first half. The team, understandably, never recovered.
Dwindling fan support? The prior day's contest felt like a home game, but with nine minutes left in this one and No. 6 Syracuse leading 68-45, UNC fans trickled out of the Coliseum, serenaded by a chant of “Let’s go, Orange!”
It was, in all, quite the contrast to Tuesday’s first-round blowout of Virginia Tech. And hasn’t that so often been the case? Forward Armando Bacot certainly thought so.
“I just think that was the story of the season,” he said. “One night, we're playing good, next night … I don't know.”
North Carolina (14-19) had pieced together a few moments of the former leading up to Wednesday. The team had won four of its last five games, among them a 92-79 win over Syracuse in the Carrier Dome on Feb. 29.
And the way the Tar Heels secured that game — with a season-best 11 3-pointers alongside 25 assists on 33 made baskets — seemed like a perfect model for how they’d approach this one.
Guard Leaky Black said UNC also planned to feed Garrison Brooks, who has been good for 20-plus a game as of late, to open up those outside shots. Syracuse, which UNC had beaten nine times in a row, assumed this was coming, too.
“They knew our game plan, obviously,” Black said. “(They were) just packing it in and allowing us to shoot, and we just weren't making shots.”
Indeed. Of UNC’s 22 first-half points, 16 came in the paint, six came at the free-throw line and zero came off midrange or 3-point shots.
A momentum-killing three by Anthony, who made a career-high seven against the Orange in February, or anyone else, really, could have softened the blow of Syracuse’s 15-0 run to end the half. (It was another spurt on a long list of those UNC allowed this season at inopportune times, with late collapses against Clemson and Duke at the top of the list.)
“They forced us to take a lot of bad shots,” Brooks said. “I think we turned the ball over a couple times in that stretch, and they took advantage of our mistakes.”
The second half was anticlimactic from start to finish, as Syracuse held onto a roughly 20-point lead behind the hot shooting of Elijah Hughes (a game-high 27 points, four 3-pointers) and three more starters who reached double figures.
The Tar Heels were in such a hole that, even after shooting 7-12 to open the second half, they still trailed by 17. UNC’s most notable moments of those final 20 minutes came off the court: parents behind the bench holding back tears; Robinson sitting, defeated, with a Gatorade towel over his head; a fan being escorted out of the Coliseum by security after jawing with Brooks.
“I didn't see this coming tonight, and so that's another way I made a mistake,” Williams said. “I should have prepared them differently. I've did more soul searching this year than I've ever done because I've been so lucky, but bottom line is that Syracuse beat North Carolina tonight and Jimmy Boeheim did a better job than Roy Williams did. Those things aren't easy to say.”
Left struggling for answers for a final time this season — first in January, when they lost five straight, then in February when they lost seven straight, and now in March — UNC’s players concurred. Syracuse had tangible energy Wednesday.
As for the Tar Heels?
“We don't know,” Bacot said. “Coach was asking us why. I don't know. Like I said, I think that's the story of this season.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.