Forty minutes of basketball all boiled down a single heartbeat.
The final 0.6 seconds of the night were what ultimately defined the game for North Carolina. Trailing to Pittsburgh by one point in the final possession, the Tar Heels had no choice but to make the short time count.
Off the inbound, the ball immediately found its way into Caleb Love's hands — just as it was drawn up. The junior guard stepped back, lined up a jumper, and let it fly.
But when the buzzer sounded a split-second later, UNC hadn't clinched the win. Instead, the ball had been swatted out of the air by Pittsburgh guard Nike Sibande, not making it more than a foot past Love’s fingertips. Despite trailing for the majority of the second half, the Tar Heels fell to Pitt once again, 65-64.
“.6 is enough to shoot your regular shot,” head coach Hubert Davis said. “It just didn’t go in.”
In reality, though, the moments leading up to that final play had just as much of an impact on the game.
After a missed jumper by Pittsburgh forward Blake Hinson with 49 seconds remaining, it seemed like the Tar Heels had the upper hand. But then, a UNC turnover and a foul called on junior guard RJ Davis gave the Panthers the opportunity to push ahead.
With two sunk free throws from guard Jamarius Burton, they did just that.
“At the end of the day we had a 1-point lead with the ball,” Hubert Davis said. “On two straight possessions, we turned the ball over, didn't get a shot and then we fouled them and put them on the free throw line … In a crucial moment where the only thing that you need to do was get a score or a stop, or both, we got neither. And that's the frustrating part.”
The final minute of the game was the worst-case scenario for the Tar Heels. Nothing went right for them, despite the fact that Davis said they drill scenarios like this one every day in practice.
Throughout the night, the Tar Heels missed countless chances to put themselves ahead of the Panthers and establish dominance.
North Carolina was unable to capitalize on scoring opportunities, shooting just under 35 percent and only making 13 out of 22 free throws. Despite forcing 10 turnovers, UNC was only able to score nine points off of them.
These small mistakes added up and, at the end of the game when it mattered most, it was those mistakes that caused the Tar Heels to drop their first home game of the year.
“We know that we were literally one make away, or one rebound or one stop away from winning that game,” graduate forward Pete Nance said. “There's one or two plays here and there that we had to make to beat a really good team and we all know that.”
For Davis, the loss all comes down to mentality.
“We weren’t disciplined enough to win the game. We weren't tough enough to win the game. We didn't shoot the ball well enough to win the game. We didn't play good enough defense to win the game,” Davis said. “The number one thing in regards to our team the whole year is the discipline and the details.”
Closing out tight games has been something the Tar Heels have struggled with repeatedly over the season, falling to teams like Alabama and Virginia in closely contested matchups. In its six previous losses, UNC had led at halftime in three of them, and two came down to the final possession.
Even in the team's wins, a significant amount have gone down to the wire or been close throughout the majority of play. This inability to obtain substantial leads stems from how the Tar Heels perform over the entire game — not just the final moments.
A game-deciding play with 0.6 seconds on the clock is unpredictable. It's also avoidable.
The Tar Heels will need to work to avoid having games defined by fractions of a second, and instead capitalize on opportunities throughout the game in order to win consistently down the line.
“We definitely should have won that game,” Love said. “But we play another one Saturday so we can’t get in our heads.”
@dthsports | firstname.lastname@example.org
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