RALEIGH, N.C. — With less than 30 seconds left on the clock, the Wolfpack faithful in PNC Arena launched into a taunt against the Tar Heels that few would have seen coming just a few months prior.
“NIT! NIT!” the voices echoed as the game ticked away.
Time expired just a moment later and N.C. State claimed a dominant 77-69 win over the Tar Heels. The loss — UNC’s 11th of the season — tied the record for most losses by a preseason No. 1 team.
After North Carolina’s loss to Miami on Monday night, senior center Armando Bacot told reporters that he was “stressed the hell out” about not making the NCAA Tournament. UNC entered its contest against the Wolfpack as a bubble team, projected by ESPN college basketball analyst Joe Lunardi to be one of the "first four out."
Now, after a chance for a Quad 1 win turned into an eighth conference loss, the road to The Big Dance looks even more unlikely, but the team isn't throwing in the towel just yet.
"Coach Davis has been preaching that there's still games left and he's keeping our spirits high just to keep battling and keep fighting," RJ Davis said. "It doesn't matter that this is not how we predicted the season was going to go."
Graduate forward Pete Nance and junior guard Caleb Love both reiterated that they're not going to give up. Nance said that he feels like the team is "right there," and Love said "we can definitely save ourselves."
Easier said than done.
UNC has four games left in the regular season. Two of these opponents, Duke and Virginia, are top-25 teams in the NET. While Notre Dame and FSU don’t pose as much of a challenge at face value, the Tar Heels will take on both of those teams away from the Dean E. Smith Center, where UNC currently boasts a 2-7 record.
There’s also very little indication that North Carolina will make any fundamental changes moving forward. Bacot said that, other than adjustments made for Jack Clark’s return, North Carolina’s approach on the court was very much the same as it was a month ago against the Wolfpack.
When asked about how he could change his message to the team, head coach Hubert Davis disagreed that his approach wasn’t working.
“Sometimes it doesn’t come when you want it, where you want it, how you want it and the manner in which you want it, at the time that you want it,” he said. “That’s life. So, what the key is, is to understand and to continue to get back up and to continue to fight. That’s what Carolina’s always been about, that’s what this team has always been about and it’s not even a choice — that’s the only direction that you can go.”
Although the words may indicate the team is trying to remain upbeat, the scenes after the game all but confirmed a sense of doom amongst the Tar Heels.
Parents and family members waited outside of the visiting locker room tunnel to greet the Tar Heels as they walked back out to the court with their heads hanging low. Former UNC players Garrison Brooks, Day’Ron Sharpe and Coby White could offer little more than a fist bump or high five to console their fellow Tar Heels after the loss.
Admittedly, there wasn’t much left to say.
Bacot admitted he didn’t know what the team’s exact next steps are — other than to “try to win." Outside of the locker room, after several minutes of encouraging words from his mother, the two embraced for a much-needed hug.
In contrast to the objectively gloomy demeanor of UNC’s players, Hubert Davis offered a jovial laugh when asked by reporters if he felt his team was running out of time.
His message to the team was one of patience — “There’s a long season ahead of us.”
“I’m very hopeful and confident that the things that we’re talking about and the things that we’re working on, it is going to result in something positive in terms of wins,” Hubert Davis said. “I just do.”
@dthsports | email@example.com
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