The North Carolina men’s basketball team seems to like patterns: win big, lose big, win big again, lose big again. Crush Louisville by 45, deflate against Marquette. Beat No. 11 FSU by eight at home, fizzle out against Syracuse.
Head coach Roy Williams put it best after the loss to Marquette that followed the crushing victory over Louisville:
“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 last week. “We can't stand a little prosperity.”
That statement is still as relevant as ever.
After a dominating win over ACC-leading Florida State on Saturday, UNC continued the established win-lose pattern by falling, 72-70, against unranked Syracuse on Monday night, in a critical game against a middle-of-the-pack ACC team with NCAA Tournament stakes on the line.
It’s an aggravating pattern that even sophomore big man Armando Bacot, who led the team with a double-double of 18 points and 15 rebounds, can’t explain.
“I don’t know, we just go from playing one of our best games of the year beating Florida State to losing,” Bacot said. “It’s just tough.”
Syracuse has a special way of frustrating teams with their zone defense. Top that tricky defense off with Buddy Boeheim notching 26 points and Quincy Guerrier pouring in another 18, and there’s a perfect storm for UNC’s shooting-challenged team. The ebbs and flows of UNC’s season confused Bacot, but what he does know is that the Tar Heels could have found a way to win, if not for sloppy play.
“As a whole, we’re just too lackadaisical,” Bacot said. “I feel like we just went out there tonight just expecting for the game to be handed to us, and we lost.”
Twenty turnovers, 28 points handed to Syracuse from those turnovers, huge scoring runs for the Orange at critical points and two missed free throws from first-year guard Caleb Love all certainly constitute lackadaisical play.
“Coach (Dean) Smith used to say every turnover is carelessness or selfishness, and ours are split about 50/50,” Williams said.
It wasn’t that UNC couldn’t have broken the pattern to beat Syracuse — the Orange had less than a three percent edge on shooting from the field, and UNC dominated the glass, out-rebounding the Orange by 20 — but the Tar Heels simply lost it for themselves.
“We had to find our rhythm and we just couldn't do that,” Love said. “The whole game was kind of dry. We came out slow, wasn’t ready to play.”
A tooth-and-nail, down-to-the-wire comeback wasn’t out of the question for the Tar Heels, despite fumbling an early lead. With just two minutes left in the game, a key 3-point jumper from Love brought UNC within two possessions. A free throw from Day’ron Sharpe, a shot from behind the arc from RJ Davis and an impressive layup off a sneaky steal for Love brought the game within two. There were 18 seconds left. The Tar Heels could have done it.
It wasn’t enough.
So far, the pattern of following up a victory with a crushing loss hasn’t been the nail-in-the-coffin for the season, but it will be in tournament play. There’s certainly a chance for the Tar Heels to break that bad habit, that pattern that's frustrated UNC fans all season — but it has to end here.
“After we play Duke, we’ve just really got to look in the mirror,” Bacot said. “After that, it’s win or go home.”