The Wolfpack was hoping to avoid falling further into the cellar of the ACC standings on Saturday afternoon, but now it finds itself all alone at the bottom. The Pack trailed North Carth Carolina by just two points at the half, but the Tar Heels pulled in the final 10 minutes of the game, grabbing a 74-61 win and handing the rival Pack its sixth-straight conference loss.
"For a while we had a pretty good ballgame going," Lowe said. "In the first half we played pretty decent basketball and made a nice run at the half. Came out the second half and just made a couple of bad plays."
The Heels (14-11, 3-7 ACC) have just three conference wins, but two of those have now come at the hands of the Pack (14-12, 2-9). The Wolfpack, meanwhile, haven't won a conference game since upsetting Duke on January 20th – a drought of nearly three weeks.
"I'm not sure when when [Carolina] is every really down," Lowe said. "They might be struggling a little bit as their coach said to me but there is still a lot of pride."
After going 0-for-11 from behind the arc on Wednesday, the Pack managed to make a few on Saturday but still finished just 5-of-18 from long range. Overall, the Pack shot 41 percent from the floor while the Heels shot a nearly identical 42 percent. The two teams were also neck-and-neck in turnovers, with 12 for the Pack and 10 for the Heels.
The difference came on the glass, where the Heels dominated despite the losses of big men Ed Davis, Travis Wear and Tyler Zeller. The Heels finished with 17 offensive rebounds on 35 misses while the Pack had just 10 offensive boards on 33 misses. The difference gave the Heels a 10-point advantage in second-chance points.
"They were pretty strong," Tracy Smith said. "They were boxing out the bigs and the guards were coming right in – the ball was bouncing right to them."
Smith led the way for the Pack with 20 points and five rebounds, shooting 6-of-11 from the field. Javi Gonzalez was the only other player in double figures with 12 points and 3-of-6 shooting from 3-point range, but the junior point guard also had six turnovers and six assists. Richard Howell came off the bench to score eight points and led the team with six rebounds in just 16 minutes of play.
Scott Wood continued to struggle with his shooting touch, hitting just 2-of-10 from the floor and 1-of-7 from behind the arc. Dennis Horner also struggled, hitting just 1-of-4 from the floor and grabbing just one rebound.
"Every time we look at the film we see certain areas where we just break down," Lowe said. "A lot of it understanding how to win and how important is each and every play."
Both teams struggled offensively in the half, as turnovers and missed shots kept the scoring down but kep the game close as well. The Heels looked like they might pull away late in the half, as Deon Thompson helped fuel a 10-0 run that put Carolina up by nine points. But the Pack had an answer, finishing the half with its own 7-0 run capped off with a 3-pointer by Gonzalez to make it just a two-point deficit, 33-31 at the half.
The Heels shot 46 percent in the first half and made 2-of-5 from behind the arc while the Pack hit 40 percent of its shots from the floor and was 3-of-9 on its 3-pointers. The teams were nearly even in turnovers with six by the Pack and seven by the Heels, but Carolina took better advantage of the turnovers with four fast-break points compared to none for the Pack.
"We were feeling pretty good," Smith said. "We were excited, thought we knew what we were doing. We thought we had the compsure to come out in the second half and hit them hard."
But Carolina was the one that landed the first punch, jumping back into the lead early in the half, and the Pack would never again closer than the two-point deficit it faced at halftime. The Pack's outside shooting once again abandoned the team, as the Pack made just one 3-point basket in the first 16 minutes of the half. Even as Carolina struggled to score, the Pack couldn't put up enough points to reclaim the lead.
When a 3-pointer from Larry Drew swished through the net for the Heels at the four-minute mark, Carolina extended its lead to a game-high 10 points. The Pack never recovered from that shot, as the Heels made enough free throws down the stretch to avoid any comeback attempts by the visiting team.