When the North Carolina men’s basketball team went down 21 points to Pittsburgh with nine minutes left to play, the Dean E. Smith Center was feeling extra blue. But with just around two minutes left in the game, the Tar Heels were suddenly within six points.
Fans were out of their seats, rallying desperately behind the Heels, in hopes of avoiding a deflating loss to one of the bottom teams in the conference.
And it wasn't enough.
Despite sophomore Caleb Love scoring 15 points in the last five minutes of the game, UNC fell short, losing 76-67. Pitt held a steady lead for most of the game, leading 40-23 at halftime. The Panthers more than doubled UNC’s shooting percentage at half, with 60 percent compared to UNC’s 28 percent. For the game, Pitt was almost 60 percent from behind the arc, while UNC was at 27 percent.
“We weren’t making shots and they were,” Love said. “We dug ourselves a hole, and it was too deep. We tried to come back late, and there was just not enough time on the clock.”
Love noted that the team was shooting a lot of jumpers in the first half, rather than getting to the rim and finishing around the basket.
Pitt entered the game as the lowest-scoring team in the ACC on the season. But Thursday night, the Panthers played like they had something to prove.
“At the end of the day, we gotta find a way to get stops,” senior Leaky Black said. “I felt like they were scoring at will on us from start to finish.”
Head coach Hubert Davis said that he had identified and communicated three things the team needed and will need moving forward — defense in the first half, rebounding and taking care of the basketball.
But he team failed to check those boxes. Pitt shot the highest percentage from the field in the first half than they’ve shot in any half this season, and Pitt had 20 points off of UNC’s 10 turnovers in the first half, practically converting every turnover into points.
While Love led the team with 19 points, he had just 4 points in the first half. In the second half, he came out swinging, scoring 13 straight UNC points late in the period and dishing an assist to forward Brady Manek to put the Tar Heels in reach of a win. However, the finishing score showed that the team needed this energy early on.
“We all gotta figure out what really gets us going before a game, night in and night out,” Black said. “We really gotta figure out a way to not take our opponents lightly or wait till we’re down 20 again to come back, like, ‘now let’s start playing.’ Nah, let’s do it from the jump and we won’t have to worry about that.”
Love said that the team wasn’t pressuring the ball or doing anything on the defensive end to take the Panthers out of what they were running. Pitt was getting whatever they wanted.
Both Love and Davis said Monday's practice wasn’t great, and Tuesday’s practice still wasn’t where the team wanted it to be. Still, the loss came as a surprise.
“We just didn’t play the way that I hoped, anticipated, thought that we would play," Davis said. "With so much to play for, so much motivation to compete and to have fun. Just very disappointed.”
With Pitt being one of the bottom five teams in the ACC, Black noted that the team got complacent. UNC let Pitt throw the first punch, and in order to stop the bleeding, the Tar Heels will need to figure out how to be consistent – no matter the opponent.
“We think the other team’s just gonna roll over just because we got the North Carolina on our chest. Nah, it’s the opposite,” Black said. “They see the North Carolina and they’re gonna attack us. It’s gonna be their best game.”
As UNC looks to salvage its chances at a tournament bid, it will need to stop relying on second-half comeback efforts and start looking at aggressive first-half runs. The Tar Heels don’t seem to have the strength to hoist themselves out of holes. Moving forward, they’ll need to play both halves of every game like they played the last few minutes of Thursday’s game – scrappy, aggressive and with a will to win.
“Yes this is a bad loss for sure, but we got a game on Saturday, and we still gotta go get a win,” Love said.
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