At times this year, the North Carolina men’s basketball team has looked bad.
Meaning, really bad. Sixteen percent 3-point shooting in a 79-76 loss to N.C. State bad. Twenty turnovers in a narrow win over undermanned Miami bad.
But on Saturday, despite suffering an 82-75 loss to Florida State on the road, "bad" is one word that doesn't describe the Tar Heels’ performance.
If anything, the UNC group that took the court in Tallahassee put together the team’s most complete display of the young, but quickly progressing, campaign — a performance that could serve as a turning point as the Tar Heels already prepare to enter the second half of their schedule.
Against the Seminoles, North Carolina hit a season-high 10 three-pointers — the most in a loss since 2018. UNC’s assist-to-turnover ratio (19 assists, 14 turnovers) was positive for a second straight game. Standout performances from guards Kerwin Walton, RJ Davis and Anthony Harris showed improvements for a backcourt that has struggled to have an impact all year.
Still, it wasn’t a perfect game by any means. Long scoring droughts and transition buckets after UNC turnovers allowed the Seminoles to hold a lead for nearly 34 minutes of game time, and ultimately cost North Carolina a fourth-straight ACC win.
“It’s cliche to say that you’re not interested in moral victories,” head coach Roy Williams said. “I just want us to play better. You get it to a one-possession game, you make some mistakes, miss some shots.”
Florida State was likely North Carolina’s biggest test so far on this side of Texas, and had the size to minimize the Tar Heels’ strengths in grabbing second-chance points and dominating the paint.
“They’re very athletic, probably one of the most athletic teams we’re going to play this year,” senior forward Garrison Brooks said. “I think they just did a great job doing that and then using their size and strength to box out.”
UNC’s 29 total rebounds was a season-low, which is a fair expectation when facing a long, athletic and experienced Seminoles team. But while the Tar Heels' bigs were held to underwhelming performances, the guard play was impressive enough to keep them within striking distance.
North Carolina has long been a post-centric team, but this year’s iteration of the Tar Heels has been almost entirely post-reliant. The quartet of Brooks, sophomore Armando Bacot and first-years Walker Kessler and Day’Ron Sharpe has accounted for an average of 34 points of UNC’s 73 per game posting. At times, offensive rebounds have been North Carolina’s only source of offense.
Saturday’s game was a different case entirely. Guards accounted for 48 of the Tar Heels’ 75 points, and season highs for Davis and Walton pushed them back into the game when the Seminoles looked to be separating.
“Each day, we’re gaining confidence in each other,” Davis said. “In order for us to be great, it’s just the little things that matter. We had a run, and then they answered back, and we answered back. If we could limit that back-and-forth and just control the game, we’ll be really good.”
North Carolina will not face many teams with the size and athletic ability of Florida State. Entering Saturday, the Tar Heels led the country in total rebounds per game, and there’s no reason to believe their post play will regress.
If UNC’s 3-point shooting, floor spacing and improved guard play on Saturday was any indication of what the rest of the season may look like, this loss may have represented a turning point in what has so far been a disappointing season for the Tar Heels.
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