Over the last few years, the North Carolina men’s basketball team’s early top-ten matchups have been games to forget.
In 2017, UNC was beat down by 18 points against then-No. 4 Michigan State. In 2018, the normally high-powered Tar Heel offense was quieted by then-No. 7 Michigan in a 84-67 defeat. In 2019, they were completely outclassed at home against then-No. 6 Ohio State by 25 points. And just last season, they were demolished by the potent three-point attack of then-No. 8 Iowa.
While Saturday's game against the No. 6 Purdue was another defeat, there was a different fight in the Tar Heels that hadn't been seen in those previous embarrassments.
When a very diversified Purdue offense got into a groove, they responded by shooting over 41 percent from the 3-point line.
When junior forward Armando Bacot struggled with early foul trouble, UNC's role players stepped up.
When the Boilermakers made runs to pull away, the team fought with them until the final buzzer.
“I told the team that as disappointed and upset and frustrated that we lost tonight against a very, very, very good team, that I’m also equally as proud of them for how they did throughout the entire game, specifically in the second half," head coach Hubert Davis said.
Davis, who suffered his first loss as a UNC head coach, remained animated on the sidelines from start to finish, energizing a team that found itself trailing nearly the entire game.
The Boilermakers got out to an early 12-4 lead after just under three minutes of play. Their bigs were dominating the paint with their size and strength while their shooters were knocking down nearly every good look they had. It appeared like the Tar Heels were about to get their butts kicked yet again.
But North Carolina slowly came back into the game — thanks to a hot start from sophomore forward Dawson Garcia — and got the deficit to as small as three points during the first half.
“I knew it was gonna be a fight the whole game and we got punched in the mouth,” Garcia said. But we came right back and we weathered the storm.”
During the second half, each team exchanged punches. Midway through the half, each team delivered two of the strongest blows. A 9-0 Purdue run and was countered quickly by a 7-0 UNC run. But with about 6:30 left on the clock, the Boilermakers went on a final spurt to deliver the knockout.
Every missed UNC scoring chance was quickly countered by a fast Purdue transition, and all of a sudden, the gap exceeded 10 points for the first time all game. While the Tar Heels never recovered, they continued to trade baskets with Purdue and eventually cut the game back to single digits in the final moments.
“I think we showed a lot of grit and effort towards the second half,” sophomore guard RJ Davis said. “I’m proud of my team so we’ll learn from this as a good learning experience and we’ll move on.”
Moral victories don’t show up on a team’s overall record, but they could set a tone for the rest of the season.
While turnovers were still a huge issue and the defense is not close to being champion-caliber, the Tar Heels showed they have heart and proved they can hang with a top team – something its most recent predecessors couldn’t achieve early in a season.
Now, it’s time to see if they can build on it.
“We can learn from today,” Davis said. “We can be motivated and upset, but we can also be determined to play even better tomorrow.”
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