COLUMN: Bigger, better, stronger North Carolina ends Indiana's season with the Hoosiers speciality -- 3s

Indiana faced an uphill battle against North Carolina on Friday night, and that was before the Tar Heels couldn't miss from 3. Indiana's season ends in the Sweet 16, but it 2015-16 was a good step forward for the program.

Indiana turned its season around with terrific 3-point shooting and much-improved defense. 

Indiana's season ended when both things broke down against the buzzsaw that was North Carolina.

The bigger, stronger Tar Heels suddenly became dead-eye 3-point shooters, too, and Indiana could never compete. The Hoosiers' run to the Sweet Sixteen came to a close with a 101-86 loss to the top-seeded Tar Heels on Friday night in Philadelphia.

"This one stings," Thomas Bryant said. "This, right here, it fuels me." 

Indiana (27-8) seemed like a long shot to beat the Heels when Robert Johnson (ankle) was ruled out prior to the game, and that was before North Carolina fed the Hoosiers large spoonfuls of their own medicine.

Carolina entered the game shooting 31 percent from 3-point range on the season. The Hoosiers had 8 players that shot a better percentage from deep than the Tar Heels' best shooter (37.4%). 

The percentages say make North Carolina beat you from the perimeter. The percentages were unkind to Indiana on Friday.

Marcus Paige -- a 33 percent 3-point shooter -- opened the game with four 3-pointers in just over four minutes, and his teammates followed suit. North Carolina started 10-of-12 from beyond the arc and finished with a season-high 11 3s on 20 attempts. Paige, a 4-year starter, made six of them on 9 attempts on his way to 21 points and 6 assists.

"Marcus was making video game shots to start the game," Indiana coach Tom Crean said afterward. "I mean, seriously."

The rest of the way, Indiana played offense like a team that felt the pressure to score on virtually every possession just to stay close. The Hoosiers looked timid, unsure of themselves, and they had the numbers to prove it -- 41 percent shooting. 

North Carolina is tough to beat on any day, but when the Tar Heels make 11 3s, there isn't a team in the country that can beat them. 

"The net must have looked like an ocean to them," Juwan Morgan said. 

"Sometimes it's your night," Max Bielfeldt said. "Tonight was their night."

The Hoosiers missed Johnson, but the hard truth is they ran into a better team, a team they probably shouldn't have seen this early, but did. Much like the Sweet 16 game against Kentucky from four years ago, the Hoosiers were never really close. They trailed Carolina by 11 at half and never got the deficit under 10 the rest of the way. In both games, Indiana scored, but could never get enough stops to make it a game.

During one stretch in the second half, North Carolina scored on 13 of 16 possessions. That's three total stops in more than seven minutes while playing from more than 10 points behind. Simply never had a chance.

"We couldn't stop them," Ferrell said. 

"That's a tough train to stop," Bielfeldt added.

Collin Hartman fought like hell to move Brice Johnson off the block -- and he had Johnson frustrated by the second half -- but Johnson is a monster, and he eventually got his. The double-double machine had 20 points and 10 rebounds, and that was after a slow start. After all, Carolina was bombing 3s in the first half, and Johnson doesn't shoot 3s.

"The 3s hurt us, no question about that, but the post-ups, they destroyed us," Crean said. "We couldn't overcome that."

In Robert Johnson's absence, Indiana needed stellar performances from Troy Williams and Nick Zeisloft. Williams was horrific in the first half -- Much worse even than Bad Troy -- but he made five 3-pointers and had 21 points in the second half, though they did little good. 

"I would've have like to have pushed the doctors out of the way and gotten him in there," Bielfeldt joked about Johnson. "For selfish reasons."

Zeisloft dribbled the ball off his foot without a defender in the same zip code in the opening minutes, and he was invisible the rest of the night. Zero points, 0-for-3 shooting, 2 rebounds in his final game as a Hoosier. He looked nervous, afraid of the end. But Zeisloft could have gone for 21 points and seven 3s, and Indiana likely still would have lost.

For the third time in as many Sweet 16 appearances under Tom Crean, Indiana ran into a bad matchup, and lost all three by double figures. This felt like a team of destiny for awhile, but when a group of likable kids win a lot of games, you're destined to feel that way, even if such things don't exist. 

Indiana wasn't the best team in college basketball this year. It's that simple. And while this wasn't a team of destiny, it was one of great significance. This group, including its coach, took a season headed for disaster and turned it into a run to the Sweet Sixteen that helped the program -- and again, its coach -- win back many of the fans it had lost. 

Winning is always the top priority at Indiana, but perhaps just as significant as its Big Ten title, undefeated home record and tournament win over Kentucky is the fact that this Indiana team helped repair the program's tarnished reputation. The off-court issues of teams past embarrassed the school, the program, and all that ever wore the Cream and Crimson. 

This Indiana team, as likable a group from top to bottom as I've ever been around, started to repair the harm done by those that came before. 

"There are going to be few things in their lives outside of personal issues or tragedies [that will compare] with what they've had to overcome," Crean said. "It's been a bit crazy. And again we're still talking about stuff that happened in November and December. I mean, I don't know many teams that have to deal with that. The way they were able to look at adversity or people's version of it, shut that out and absolutely focus in on what improvement is all about, what a level of commitment and connectedness is to one another ... That's why we had the success that we had.

"The program has done a fantastic job of overcoming those things, and these guys take a back seat to no one on that."

It's been a tumultuous few years at Indiana, and things have often felt uncertain and unstable during that period.

The fans wanted to win. The fans wanted the players to stay off the police blotter. The fans wanted Tom Crean gone.

Now, even some of the most pessimistic members of Hoosier Nation see promise in the program's future, and many of the same people who three months ago asked me when Crean would be fired are now asking if Fred Glass will give him a contract extension. 

The season ended earlier than the Hoosiers hoped, but this was a year Indiana needed. A year Crean and his family needed. And a year the passionate fan base needed.

After two and three steps backward the last two years, Indiana took a jump in the right direction this year, a jump toward stability. Top Stories