Two shots, two misses.
If you’d just seen the final handful of seconds of the North Carolina men’s basketball team’s three-point loss to N.C. State on Tuesday, you might think a last-second 3-pointer not bouncing through the rim was all that separated the Tar Heels from the Wolfpack in their 79-76 defeat.
“I was just trying to get the ball up and trying to make it, just a couple of seconds left in the game and I knew we were down three,” said guard RJ Davis, who took the first of UNC’s last-ditch attempts to force overtime.
Really, those two attempts — coming from the respective hands of first-years Davis and Caleb Love — were a worst-case scenario for UNC. North Carolina is a post-centric team. That much is clear with just a glance at the roster: two McDonald’s All-American first-years in the post, an increasingly consistent former five-star recruit in sophomore Armando Bacot and ACC Preseason Player of the Year Garrison Brooks.
But what doesn't seem to be as clear to this team, with the Tar Heels' seeming plethora of talent at the guard and wing positions, is that UNC has become something considered a death sentence in the modern game — patently, undeniably reliant on its bigs.
Davis and Love weren’t the only Tar Heels to struggle from the perimeter on Tuesday, but the pair’s game-ending misses were a fitting finale to UNC’s first loss to the Wolfpack in nearly three years. UNC shot just 16.7 percent from beyond the arch. The Love-Davis backcourt combo has shot a combined 21.5 percent from 3-point range this year. This season, the Tar Heels have shot nearly 10 percent lower than their opponents from that distance.
Simply put, UNC is in the midst of a shooting crisis.
“You start pointing fingers at one or two players, I think it hurts your team,” head coach Roy Williams said. “Everybody knows we’ve gotta do a better job of getting shots.”
If the Tar Heels hope to become a contender in the ACC, their shooting from beyond the arc simply has to get better. This is especially true when considering their proclivity to fall into early deficits. Entering Tuesday, UNC had faced double-digit deficits in five of its seven games. N.C. State added another tally to that unenviable mark.
The Wolfpack’s final shooting numbers were good, but their start was remarkable. In a fast-paced opening sequence, N.C. State buried UNC under a deficit that reached 17 points at its peak. The Wolfpack went into the locker room with a more modest seven-point advantage, but 6-9 shooting from deep by N.C. State meant the deed was already done.
The Tar Heels had been outshot once again — they finished the game with just two made 3-pointers.
If there’s one thing a post-reliant team doesn’t want to do, it's play out of a deficit against a team hitting consistently from deep. In the closing minute of Tuesday’s loss, a ticking clock and steady five-point hole meant North Carolina needed to hit at least one 3-pointer to force the game into overtime, rendering its post talent void.
“We were just playing from down, so we were trying to get a quick shot and just trap and do things like that,” Bacot said. “But me and Garrison, we gotta do a better job of just demanding the ball and trying to get the ball more, because the bigs, we’ve been doing a good job of scoring in the paint, and it’s been efficient.”
UNC has the on-paper talent to play with any group in the ACC. But with the season quickly progressing, the Tar Heels’ offensive efficiency — or lack thereof — will determine if meeting their full potential is even discussed this year.
“We’ve gotta shoot the ball better, we’ve gotta take a better job of our shot selection,” Williams said. “I think the difference in the game to me was their sense of urgency early in the game.”
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