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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC men's basketball season likely comes to fitting end at ACC Tournament

UNC junior guard Caleb Love (2) jumps toward the basket during the game against Virginia in the ACC Tournament Quarterfinals at Greensboro Coliseum on March 9, 2023.

GREENSBORO, N.C. – If this is in fact the end, the closing act couldn’t have been more inevitable.

Moments after UNC’s likely season-ending 68-59 loss to Virginia in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals, a somber mood swept through the visitors locker room at the Greensboro Coliseum. 

Several players sat with towels draped over their heads, speechless at the prospect of a once-hopeful campaign being thrown into the gutter for good. Equipment managers slipped through the never-ending mob of reporters, looking to tuck away the jerseys that probably won’t be worn again until November.

Throughout the season, the Tar Heels opted to play the game of “wait-and-see.” Last year’s March magic seemed to provide an alibi for each puzzling underperformance, and the experienced group seemed to have a figuratively never-ending hourglass to put it all together.

As they quickly learned, winning games with words rather than work was easier said than done. Now, North Carolina is almost a surefire bet to be the first preseason No. 1 team to miss the NCAA Tournament since the field expanded.

“I guess really we weren’t that good,” senior forward Armando Bacot said. 

When the lost cause finally came crashing to a halt in Greensboro on Thursday night, the Tar Heels’ struggles against Virginia were vindication for a team with an abundance of questions that still had not been answered. For a group that was – usually, to a fault – urged to play with “energy, effort and toughness” from head coach Hubert Davis, the play in the second half carried little weight of its own.

Despite trailing by just one at the break, UNC allowed Virginia to get one-on-one looks in the paint and soon immediately trailed again by eight. While junior guard RJ Davis seemingly took matters into his own hands by scoring a game-high 24 points, the Tar Heels proved to be too undisciplined on the defensive end, as the methodical Cavaliers offense routinely worked their way to easy looks by running its double screen set. 

As two players came off curls from the extended elbow, they were either able to get downhill or feed the player rolling to the rim. The Tar Heels had seen the play over and over, yet they still couldn't provide much resistance.

“You don’t know if you should shoot the gap or trail them in those situations,” junior guard Caleb Love said. “It’s tough to defend and communicate in those areas.”

With just under 12 minutes remaining, Bacot — who sprained his left ankle in the previous contest — voluntarily took himself out of the game so the team could run the break, but the substitution deprived UNC of its senior leader. The Tar Heels were able to trim the gap to as little as two points, but late-game fatigue and a barrage of missed free throws ultimately thwarted the threat. 

Like many times this season, the Tar Heels had their chance to earn a much-needed quality win. North Carolina led in the second half in nine of its 13 defeats, and although hindsight is always crystal clear, one can only envision the team’s postseason prospects if just a few of the narrow losses had gone their way.

According to the players, though, they have nobody to blame but themselves.

“It’s just the little things,” RJ Davis said. “It’s been like that the whole year, just attention to details.”

Throughout the offseason, the inspired play that was previously seen in Fort Worth, Philadelphia and New Orleans rightfully launched the Tar Heels back into the national spotlight. A deeper glance beyond that narrow scope might have shown a flawed roster that barely sneaked into last year’s tournament field, but the 240 minutes on the grand stage showed just how good the group could be.

Ultimately, the accomplishments created a grand shadow that could not be avoided. 

“Really the story of this year was talking about last year,” Bacot said. “It was just an overdue, long hangover.”

Although UNC is still not entirely eliminated from the Big Dance, Bart Torvik’s metrics currently give the team a microscopic 1.3 percent chance of earning an at-large bid. And the aftermath of the loss suggested that Thursday was the Tar Heels’ final swan song.

A consolation NIT appearance could be on the table, yet many players were ho-hum about their potential participation. Love said he “wants to win something for the team” while Bacot – who, remember, is still nursing an ankle injury – was more non-committal, suggesting that he'll wait to hear feedback from Hubert Davis and school officials. 

But in terms of playing meaningful basketball, the ticking time bomb on the Tar Heels’ implosion has finally expired. For a group that talked all season about carrying the weight of lofty expectations, perhaps it's all for the best.  


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