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UNC men's basketball nears breaking point after early implosion at Wake Forest

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UNC senior center Armando Bacot (5) attacks the basket during the men's basketball game against Wake Forest on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, at Lawrence Joel Stadium. UNC fell to Wake Forest 92-85.

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- For nearly 40 minutes after the game ended, the North Carolina men's basketball team remained in the visitors locker room of LJVM Coliseum.

After Wake Forest handed the Tar Heels their third straight loss, 92-85, there was much to deliberate about. The defeat was much more humiliating than the box score indicated — the Demon Deacons led by 22 points at the half, and much of that deficit was shaved down in what was essentially garbage time.

It was a distasteful performance that caught players and coaches by surprise, made even worse by the fact that they all said the team had a great few days of practices and that spirits were high in Tuesday's shootaround.

When head coach Hubert Davis finally walked out to the press room around 10 p.m., he kept the details of the "much-needed" locker room discussion under lock and key.

"In order to move forward, it's best to talk to the people that you're moving forward with," he said.

Senior center Armando Bacot was more candid about the postgame intervention.

"I just told everybody like, 'I'm not going to quit. If you want to be here, be (at practice) on Thursday. If not, just go home.'"

The Demon Deacons attacked Bacot from the jump and forced him to make tough defensive reads all night. Wake Forest point guard Tyree Appleby specifically targeted UNC's drop coverage, feasting on floaters and dribble penetrations when Bacot dropped back and lobbing the ball to big men Matthew Marsh and Davion Bradford when he played up.

The game plan worked, and Bacot collected his third and fourth fouls just under three minutes into the second half, sending him to the bench for much of UNC's comeback attempt. The Tar Heels cut the lead to 10 points with 3:27 to play, but were merely playing to avoid a double-digit loss.

Junior guard Caleb Love, who missed all nine of his first-half field goal attempts, drained three futile 3-pointers in the final 53 seconds of the game. On the other end of the court, Appleby sealed UNC's fate from the charity stripe, setting an ACC record with 23 made free throws on the night.

One of the harsh realities that North Carolina has to confront is its lackadaisical starts to games. That issue was never more apparent than on Tuesday.

"Teams come out trying to punch us in the mouth, and we got to play catch up," Love said. "I feel like we got to be the puncher."

As the season marches on, the Tar Heels can't afford to absorb any more punches if they want to play for a title in March. This squad became the fourth UNC team since 1990 with multiple losing streaks of three games or more. The previous three didn't make the NCAA Tournament field.

"Our back is against the wall," Bacot said.

But how is it possible that a team with so much talent and postseason experience finds itself in this position in the first place?

It's an uncomfortable question with few answers, and a puzzle that Davis has grappled with throughout his tenure whenever the team has gone through these types of rough patches. 

At times, he's seemed utterly perplexed by the team's seeming lack of effort and enjoyment of the game — the same game that brought him so much fulfillment as a player at the same university 30 years ago.

"The only thing that I've ever wanted as a coach is I just want a team with my personality," Davis said.

Bacot seemed to suggest that chemistry is the team's primary problem as of late. Davis said he agreed.

When pressed on whether those chemistry issues had been there all season or if they were a more recent issue, Davis took a 10-second pause that felt more like an eternity.

Finally, he looked up and uttered his final words of the night. 

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"I don't know."

@lucasthomae

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com


Lucas Thomae

Lucas Thomae is the 2023-24 sports managing editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as an assistant sports editor and summer editor. Lucas is a senior pursuing a major in journalism and media with a minor in data science.