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The Daily Tar Heel

After loss to Syracuse, wonder about what could have been for Cole Anthony and UNC


UNC first-year guard Cole Anthony (2) dribbles upcourt against Syracuse in the second round of the 2020 New York Life ACC Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum, in Greensboro, N.C., on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. UNC lost 81-53.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Remember the Notre Dame game?

Not the one just a month ago, when North Carolina lost on a 3-pointer from Nate Laszewski as part of a seven-game losing streak (though that one will be hard to erase). Think back to UNC’s season opener.

The Tar Heels earned a handy 76-65 win over the Irish and were led by Cole Anthony, the much-hyped first-year thought to be the best point guard prospect since Kyrie Irving.

It would have been difficult, directly after that night, to predict what would come next.

To predict that Anthony’s 34 points that game would end up being a season-high; that the Tar Heels would register a 14-19 campaign, by far the worst under head coach Roy Williams (cross that one off your bingo card); that North Carolina’s season would reach its bitter conclusion before mid-March, ending with a dispiriting 81-53 loss to Syracuse Wednesday night in the second round of the ACC Tournament.

“We know we played bad,” senior guard Brandon Robinson said. “We know we didn’t have the season we wanted to have.”

For the third straight game, Anthony struggled mightily, recording more turnovers (six) than points (five) and missing five of six 3-point attempts against the Orange’s vaunted zone. Since the opening tip of UNC’s regular season finale against Duke, Anthony’s shot nine of 34 from the field and two of 11 from deep.

After the game, he was not made available for comment.

“Cole has been one of my best friends since the eighth grade,” fellow first-year Armando Bacot said in his stead. “It was kind of sad knowing this is potentially the last time we'll ever play with each other, not having an idea of what he's doing next year.”

With the draft status of Anthony — a consensus top-three prospect at the start of the year and still a potential lottery pick — hazy, and without him speaking postgame, we, like NBA scouts, are left with nothing but the evidence on the court.

The signs of frustration were evident, as they have been all season. There was Garrison Brooks slamming a media table in displeasure after lunging for a loose ball, and in tears on the bench in the final minutes. There was Williams not even looking at Anthony as he headed to the bench, directly after a pass that sailed over the head of teammate Justin Pierce. 

Most tellingly, there was Williams lighting into Anthony after a flagrant foul, perhaps not so much for the foul — a dubious call at best — but for his point guard’s reaction to the call.

“I think we could have controlled ourselves a little bit better, especially with our frustration,” Brooks said after the game. “And I don't think us fussing at the refs and crying and whining will help eventually any of those calls. It only makes it worse for us. So hopefully our players that were whining and complaining learn from that.”

To be sure, it would be unfair to pin all the hardship, all the misery of this season on Anthony. He did, after all, lead North Carolina in scoring at 18.5 points per game. He also missed 11 games due to meniscus surgery, part and parcel with the most injury-ravaged season the Tar Heels have seen in some time.

“At the beginning of the year, we had a chance to be a really good team,” Robinson said. “But we just hit so much was hard for us to play together and get a feel for each other. That was the hardest part.”

Here comes another “to be sure”: To be sure, the Tar Heels were by no means world-beaters in that first game against Notre Dame. They coughed it up 18 times. They shot 10 of 32 in the first half. Only two players reached double digits.

But one of them was Anthony, and Anthony looked, in a word, invincible. He had 23 in the second half alone, and made five of his eight attempts from deep in the period. 

Compare that guy to the one we saw at the end of this season, likely to be his only in Chapel Hill. 

Confusing? Yes. Crazy? Maybe. Unthinkable, after his performance that chilly November night against the Irish? Absolutely.

And barring a return, this is what Cole Anthony will leave UNC fans with — some memories of pure one-on-one basketball bliss, plus a lot of wondering and regret about what could have been. At least they'll have the Notre Dame game.


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