The North Carolina men's basketball team bruised and battered its way through three games in three nights and in the end, it ran out of juice.
All things considered, a 69-66 loss to a top-15 team in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament isn't a bad way to go out, especially for this version of UNC. This run always had a little Cinderella element to it — North Carolina is talented, but there was a hint of March magic in the Tar Heels peaking this high at the exact right time.
But that fairy tale was powered by physical, gritty play. And playing like that takes a lot of energy — the sort that was hard to hold up over the course of the game against Florida State on Friday. The Seminoles employ a platoon of long-limbed, athletic players to swarm the court at all times, clogging every passing lane and disrupting every drive.
"They're definitely unique and respect because they got so much length and they're athletic," sophomore forward Armando Bacot said. "I mean, the play 12 players deep. Kind of like how we are with our front court, they just always have fresh legs. They switch and they're fronting the post, not letting us get into our sets, so it's a tough thing."
As head coach Roy Williams says at every opportunity — UNC doesn't really run sets. Their motion offense is predicated on constant movement and screening, and when that motion is disrupted, things start to fall apart. And in the first half, you could probably count on your fingers the number of times the Tar Heels ran a perfectly smooth possession in the half court.
"Just getting in our offense, we can't really get into our set offense against them because they deny so much," first-year guard Caleb Love said. "So to beat them you gotta do a lot of movement, a lot of screening your own man. We couldn't really get nothing in the flow of the game."
After the game, the Tar Heels wouldn't say they were tired as an excuse for the loss, but who wouldn't be exhausted trying to fight through a tangled of limbs for 40 minutes, attempting to complete a second comeback in as many nights?
The Seminoles are a tough matchup in a regular game, and Friday was no regular game. While UNC entered with battle scars from the past two nights, FSU got waived through to the semifinals without playing a single minute after Duke had to withdraw from the Tournament due to a positive COVID-19 test.
Like all postseason competition in college basketball, the ACC Tournament is supposed to be a marathon and not a sprint. The higher seeds get byes, meaning fresher legs and a reward for being better in the regular season. But this year, the final matchup will be between two teams — Florida State and Georgia Tech — who were all but driven to the finish line in a Maserati after each playing in just one game before the final round.
Still, the Tar Heels had plenty of opportunities to progress to the championship matchup. Missing 11 free throws in a three-point loss surely hurts. As does whatever the first half was, with guards hosting contested shots at the end of the clock and failing to feed the post. After a resurgent second half, the game was in reach because of a volley of 3-pointers from first-year guard Kerwin Walton and a renewed focus on attacking the rim.
With 3:15 left in the game, RJ Davis calmly walked to the charity stripe to swish three free throws in a row to put UNC up two. But then the battle took its toll, and Florida State outscored the Tar Heels 7-2 in the remaining time to put it away as UNC failed to find its offense.
"Bottom line is their defense late in the game was much stronger than our offense was," Williams said. "We did not get a good shot at all after RJ made three free throws to put us up. We never got another good shot after that the whole time."
At the end of the day, especially when playing a team with the imposing size of Florida State, it takes a lot of gas to keep the fairy tale alive. And after playing three games in three days, the Tar Heels' tank just ran empty late in the game on Friday.