What to make of a somewhat consequential Friday night for North Carolina men’s basketball?
The Tar Heels, playing their third game in as many days, were downed in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament by second-seeded behemoth Florida State, 69-66.
Though much of the night played out like a rerun of the two teams’ earlier matchup on Feb. 24 — UNC lagging behind early, then roaring back in the second half with a handful of offensive haymakers — the result was different.
This time, the Tar Heels ran out of gas before the final buzzer, meaning there would be no ACC crown for North Carolina.
Local pride aside, though, conference tournaments have generally only been good for answering one question: Is a team peaking in March, or isn’t it?
The fact is that in the last few days — starting with wins against Notre Dame on Wednesday and Virginia Tech on Thursday — the Tar Heels have played five halves of solid to magnificent basketball, with the only dud coming in the first 20 minutes against Florida State. That they were able to all but overcome that uninspired stretch should only be more proof that this team is headed in the right direction at just the right time.
UNC opened its Friday outing sinking only eight of 30 shots and coughing it up seven times; if the Seminoles were a good amount better, the game would’ve been all but over. They weren’t, though, and entered the locker room carrying an 11-point lead that could and probably should have been a lot larger.
That left the door open for the Tar Heels, and with less than 13 minutes left to play they began to make their move. First it was sharpshooting first-year Kerwin Walton tying the game with back-to-back triples, an oasis in the desert after UNC clanked six of seven 3-point attempts in the first half.
“It’s been a problem that we’ve had basically all year, making outside shots,” head coach Roy Williams said. “Other than Kerwin, and we’re not getting him enough looks.”
Walton's threes were followed by an Armando Bacot layup and a three-point play from Day’Ron Sharpe, giving UNC its largest lead of the night at five.
The lineup out there at the time? Walton, Sharpe and RJ Davis, plus Bacot and Anthony Harris: three first-years, a sophomore and a redshirt first-year. No Garrison Brooks, no Andrew Platek, no upperclassmen to speak of. Just the experience that a single regular season, give or take, can provide.
“I think we just found out how deep we are tonight,” first-year guard Caleb Love said. “We’ve really got guys who can come in and give us a lift off the bench. We can play 10, 12 guys.”
Kemba Walker might have you believe that NCAA title runs consist of one great player, one great spurt of individual performances, one great everyone-hop-on-my-back-while-I-carry-us-to-the-promised-land run. But the truth is, more often that it’s one guy one night, another guy the next. That’s been the Tar Heels all season, and it’ll likely be the same story in Indiana for the NCAA Tournament, whether they play one game, six or somewhere in between.
Lest we forget, yes, UNC lost to Florida State, mostly due to a fatal 1-8 shooting stint in the game’s final minutes. And six of those seven misses came from — you guessed it — the same youngsters who were out there during the team’s best stretch of basketball all night.
The key, as always, is consistency. Maybe the Tar Heels were gassed after going the distance with a deep, physical Seminoles team. Maybe they faltered under the pressure of a tightly-contested, nationally televised postseason game. Maybe the shots just didn’t fall.
Whatever the case, UNC’s young corps can still acknowledge that, with college basketball's biggest stage next up, there are still reasons for optimism.
“I feel like we got better as a team this week, and we can take that on into the NCAA Tournament,” Bacot said. “We can carry this momentum.”