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The Daily Tar Heel

'Just not playing hard': Against N.C. State, UNC's first-half energy woes proved fatal

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N.C. State's Manny Bates (15) slams in two during N.C. State’s 79-76 victory over UNC at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, December 22, 2020. Photo courtesy of Ethan Hyman.

The North Carolina men's basketball team watched two attempts at 3-pointers clang against the rim as its comeback fell short in the final seconds of a 79-76 loss against the Wolfpack on Saturday.

UNC received another harsh reminder that relying on second-half comebacks is an unsustainable game plan — this time to the tune of a rivalry loss on the road. The young team has consistently struggled to start games, and errant turnovers, bad passes and practically nonexistent 3-point defense attempts have left the Tar Heels floundering again and again in the first half. 

"We've just been coming out real flat, just not playing hard," sophomore forward Armando Bacot said. "And then we get down, and that's when we want to play hard."

And play hard they did, albeit too late for a win.

Unlike its sluggish early moments, North Carolina excelled in the final minutes of the first half and the opening minutes of the second frame. The Tar Heels capitalized on defensive momentum from first-year center Walker Kessler and a successful 3-pointer from senior guard Andrew Platek, which was only the second of the night for UNC from beyond the arc.

The Tar Heels looked like a different team pounding the ball inside and finding success from their big men in the paint, with the team's first six points of the second half coming from starting forwards Garrison Brooks and Bacot. But in the end, their efforts simply weren't enough to overpower a shorthanded Wolfpack squad.

"We've just got a lot of fight in us," Bacot said. "But it's UNC; we don't settle for moral victories. We've just got to do better and just win the game." 

Resiliency is a key strength of this North Carolina squad, but the Tar Heels have relied on resiliency far too often this season. Tuesday night, their deficit stretched to 17 points in the first half before shrinking to seven going into the break.

These first-half deficits are becoming routine for head coach Roy Williams's young team. This game was the fifth time in eight games this season the Tar Heels were down at the break.

"You start pointing fingers at one or two players, I think it hurts your team," Williams said. 

The same sentiment is true about pointing fingers at a particular moment in the game. It was not lost on the final shot by first-year point guard Caleb Love; it was a collection of moments
— including the turnovers of the first half that led to fast break points and the wide-open N.C. State 3-pointers — the Tar Heels couldn't seem to stifle. 

"I think, for us moving forward, we just have to play with more fire, more intensity and stop letting players out-hustle us," first-year guard RJ Davis said.

The Wolfpack matched the Tar Heels for offensive rebounds in the first half with eight apiece, despite the Tar Heels significant size advantage in the paint. At times, UNC looked lethargic watching an undersized Wolfpack team continue to find success driving the ball into the paint.

The Tar Heels are once again forced to look for answers to their first half energy problem — a search that has no clear answer in sight. With a long stretch of ACC games ahead of the Tar Heels, this season's legacy is yet to be written.

But it is obvious that a complete game of basketball, from the opening tip to the final buzzer, is required for this group to be a top team in the ACC.

@MaryMacPorter1

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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