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Despite late comeback attempts, UNC men's basketball falls to N.C. State, 79-76

N.C. State's Shakeel Moore (2) slams in two in the second half 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 No. 17 North Carolina men's basketball team's (5-3, 0-1 ACC) second-half surge was not enough on Tuesday night as they lost to the North Carolina State Wolfpack (5-1, 1-0 ACC) in Raleigh, 79-76. The game ended a five-game UNC winning streak against the Wolfpack as the Tar Heels lost their first ACC game of the season.

What happened?

First-year guard RJ Davis struck first for North Carolina, but despite the early basket, the Tar Heels still started slow, with three early turnovers affecting their offensive flow.

Despite a sluggish start on offense, the Tar Heels kept the game close early with solid defense, including two blocks from starting big men in sophomore Armando Bacot and senior Garrison Brooks. 

Even with a staunch defensive effort in the paint early on, head coach Roy Williams' men continued to struggle defending shots beyond the arc. When Davis brought UNC level with the Wolfpack five minutes into the game,  the team from Raleigh turned on the jets. N.C. State guard Shakeel Moore finished an 8-0 run with a dunk after a Davis turnover. N.C. State ultimately finished the half shooting 66.7 percent from 3-point range — a testament to the team's scoring prowess.

The Tar Heels continued to struggle to possess the ball, giving up seven turnovers by the middle of the first half and going into a double-digit scoring hole. After continued offensive struggles, UNC scored seven straight points to end the half on a 11-3 run, reducing the deficit to just seven at the break.

UNC started the second half quickly with early offense in the paint, pulling within one of N.C. State. The Wolfpack responded with a subsequent 14-2 run to stretch its lead back to 13.

North Carolina made it a game of streaks, responding with a high-scoring run of its own to bring the teams within four points in the final minutes of the game.

Despite a late run, the Tar Heels were unable to complete a comeback after shots by Davis and fellow first-year guard Caleb Love fell short at the buzzer. 

Who stood out?

Bacot stood out for the Tar Heels, silently delivering 16 points, six rebounds and a block, all while staying out of foul trouble to play 24 minutes for UNC in the paint. 

First-year big man Walker Kessler also brought a defensive resurgence in the first half for UNC to stall what looked like it could be a runaway game for the Wolfpack. He finished the contest with six rebounds, three blocks and three steals.

When was it decided?

The game came down to a pair of 3-point attempts from UNC's first-year guards to send the contest into overtime. Ultimately, both Davis and Love's shots were off, and the Tar Heels' comeback attempt fell short, leaving them with a bitter three-point loss to swallow. 

The Tar Heels looked like a different team in the second half — a marked trend early this season — with more penetration and success under the basket. The return to pounding the ball in the paint brought a sense of normality to the North Carolina offense, aided by one of the most dominant front courts in the country. 

Ultimately, the early lead by N.C. State was too much to overcome, and the Tar Heels stalled in another late comeback attempt this season.

Why does it matter?

Though they appear more resilient than last year's team, the Tar Heels continue to struggle early, especially offensively. North Carolina is still looking for a statement win this season, and an early defeat in Raleigh is not an ideal way to start its 20-game stretch in the ACC. 

When do they play next?

North Carolina will look to bounce back in ACC play on Wednesday, Dec. 30, in an away matchup against  Georgia Tech (4-3, 0-1 ACC). 


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