RALEIGH, N.C. – 60-60, six minutes to play.
In an exuberant PNC Arena, in front of an N.C. State crowd brewing with animosity after watching nine losses to their rivals in the last 10 outings, UNC had an opportunity to earn its first Quad One victory and teeter off the NCAA Tournament bubble.
But in UNC’s ultimate 77-69 loss on Sunday afternoon, the next 78 seconds looked something like this.
The Wolfpack’s D.J. Burns Jr. – the 275-pound smooth bruiser that drew a chorus of ‘Oohs’ whenever he grazed the left block – muscled senior center Armando Bacot out of the way for two points.
Following a miss on UNC’s end, N.C. State’s Jarkel Joiner raced behind a jogging Tar Heel defense for an up-and-under layup. Two more.
Then, after a hoard of UNC players stayed back to protest what appeared to be a missed goaltending call, Joiner dashed to the left wing, took a moment of hesitation and fired a dagger that ripped through the net.
And, likely, any hopes of a magical season right along with it.
“When you play in a place like this, in their home place, and they start hitting shots, it's hard to recover,” Bacot said.
The Wolfpack made nine straight shots to build a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Even after the Tar Heels tried to trim the deficit, an alley-oop to Joiner put the exclamation point on the victory for a group that — despite being a near-lock for The Big Dance — seemed to want the win more than the North Carolina team that was supposedly fighting for its tournament life.
The Wolfpack were, in the words of Bacot, better than UNC "in that moment."
Coming into the contest, N.C. State had built an offensive foundation on erratic, yet mostly predictable offensive play.
Joiner and sophomore guard Terquavion Smith often have the free rein to shoot at will, even if the attempts seem ill-advised to the common eye. When the game slows down, the Wolfpack frequently look in Burns' direction to make things happen in the low post.
While Burns carried the load for the early part of the second half, Joiner soon took over with a series of difficult makes to put the game away in the final stretch. He ended the afternoon with 29 points, 20 of which came on 8-11 shooting after the break.
“He just got into a really nice rhythm,” UNC head coach Hubert Davis said. "Not just being able to attack the basket, I felt like he hit some really tough shots — contested twos, step-back threes — and at the end of the day, your big-time players need to step up."
Hubert Davis said that, although the final stretch played a key role in determining the outcome, there were a number of overarching issues that prevented the Tar Heels from pulling ahead earlier in the game.
UNC entered the game as one of the best teams in the country in protecting the basketball. In the team's win over N.C. State last month, North Carolina only committed seven turnovers. On Sunday, that total stretched to 13, which led to 16 points and a series of transition baskets for the Wolfpack.
"Every time I felt we turned the ball over, it was like a pick-six," Davis said. "Any time we have a recipe of more turnovers than assists, that just hasn't been good news for us."
When the Tar Heels fell at Wake Forest last Tuesday, the players and coaches spoke with a sense of urgency and insisted that the team was running out of time to find the moxie that carried them to the national title game last season. The sentiments were similar in another lackluster loss to Miami earlier in the week, where Bacot even claimed he was 'stressed the hell out' about potentially not making the tournament.
On Sunday, in another locker room filled with dejection and near hopelessness, the sunken voices couldn't help but reflect on a winnable game they let slip away.
"We were just trying to get a win," junior guard RJ Davis said. "We just didn't make enough plays when we needed to."
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