Bad losses in November are a blemish. Bad losses in February are a death note.
The North Carolina basketball team has had its fair share of bad losses this year (see: 16.7 percent 3-point shooting against N.C. State), but by Saturday, those all looked to be in the rearview mirror.
Sure, the Tar Heels couldn’t compete with the big dogs — losses to Iowa, Florida State and Virginia showed that — but they sat firmly within the NCAA Tournament field after a 99-54 wash over Louisville last weekend.
Finally, there was a spark.
A spark showing signs that a two-year-long bout with misery was coming to a close. A spark that signaled to UNC that while it might not be back to its dominant, blue blooded ways, the Tar Heels were at the very least capable of making some noise come March.
But on Wednesday, Marquette pinched that spark out. They really pinched it out. The Golden Eagles came to Chapel Hill with a sub-.500 record, on last-minute notice and facing a North Carolina program they had only beaten once in the history of the series.
Despite the circumstances, Marquette dominated every aspect of the game. The Golden Eagles outshot the Tar Heels from the field, beyond the arch and the free throw line. When UNC went into a press to control the pace, Marquette broke through half court with ease. For large swathes of the game, even with the Tar Heels’ vaunted frontcourt, the Golden Eagles dominated the paint.
To the tune of nearly 37 minutes of lead time, Marquette simply walloped North Carolina.
“We’ve laid an egg a couple of times this year, and let's make sure we say this right here: Marquette beat our rear-ends,” head coach Roy Williams said. “They outcoached us, they outplayed us, they wanted it more. Everything.”
Entering the half, UNC faced a 16-point deficit, its largest of the season.
At halftime, the Tar Heels' adjustments were simple:
"Ball screen defense, staying in front of the ball and making shots," senior forward Garrison Brooks said.
But those adjustments would never come to pass. Even when the game was within single-digits, it felt out of reach.
UNC entered Wednesday No. 33 in NET rankings, meaning that while the Tar Heels weren’t quite slated as a legitimate contender for a deep March run, they were within striking distance of the top quarter of teams in the country.
Entering Wednesday, North Carolina was slated as a 9-seed in the Big Dance by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. But, North Carolina could easily find itself on the wrong side of the bubble once again with a loss to a favored No. 11 Florida State on Saturday.
“We’ve gotta look at the mistakes we made throughout the game, first half and second half, and be ready for tomorrow,” first-year guard RJ Davis said. “Obviously we have a game coming up this weekend. You know, learn from it and then you just move on.”
Wednesday was supposed to be a celebration.
A celebration of what would have been head coach Roy Williams’ 900th career win. A celebration of a team adding another tally in the win column of its respectable 9-3 stretch this year. A celebration of a team that, despite its struggles, looked to be finally on the right path.
But instead, Wednesday saw the Tar Heels’ dreams of March look just a bit more distant than they once did.
“We’ve had a couple of good wins, and then we turn around and we think that we’re a lot better than we really are,” Williams said. “We don’t have the attention to detail. It’s bad coaching, I called a set one time and they went out and ran another set. They’re not disciplined enough to do what I say, they went out there on the court and changed their minds.”
Wednesday’s loss was bad, but no, it isn’t all over for the Tar Heels.
There are still three games to play in the regular season: FSU, Syracuse, Duke. There’s still an ACC Tournament to play, and wins to be had and runs to be made.
But if the UNC team that took the court against Marquette — one that had only one starter reach double figures, committed 19 turnovers and at times looked completely lifeless — makes a few more appearances, there will be no dancing for UNC come March.
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