The Tar Heels (17-5, 7-2 ACC) combined a solid defensive effort with control of the backboards, efficient enough offensive execution and even quality bench production to build a demoralizing 18-point lead with 17:51 to play at the KFC Yum! Center.
What happened next was a collapse of a magnitude rarely seen during the modern era of North Carolina basketball. Louisville outscored UNC 51-21 over the next 22:08 to take a 12-point lead in overtime before securing a 78-68 victory.
The statistics were readily available during the game and immediately thereafter, as they always are. The ones that stood out were Louisville’s 17 second-chance points and 14 points off turnovers after halftime. There was also the incredible foul discrepancy – UNC’s 33 fouls were the most ever by a Roy Williams-coached team – which included the Tar Heels earning 17 of 21 foul calls during one stretch.
There was also UNC’s late scoring drought. The Tar Heels made just two field goals over the final 10-and-a-half minutes of regulation. J.P. Tokoto’s dunk with 7:30 to play to push UNC’s lead back to 57-53 was his team’s final bucket until overtime.
To emphasize those statistics, however, misses on the greater point of this particular loss, UNC’s fifth of the season.
“They outworked us,” freshman wing Justin Jackson said after the game. “That all there is to it.”
Junior guard Marcus Paige, who is known by media members across the ACC for his ability to accurately break down specific plays and trends, told reporters that he couldn’t point to anything specific from the stat sheet to shed adequate light on the collapse.
Instead, Paige spoke with frustration, complete with a touch of simmering anger, about the real reason Louisville rallied from what appeared to be an insurmountable deficit.
“They just competed harder than us on both ends of the floor,” Paige said. “There’s really not a whole lot of detail you can get into… They just stepped up to the challenge. They competed harder than us, where we thought we had the game. And that’s the story. You can look at any statistical category you want, but it comes down to the fact that they wanted to win more than we did.”
Disappointment is the best characteristic in describing sophomore forward Kennedy Meeks’s body language during his brief exchange with reporters in UNC’s locker room.
“In the second half, they just hit us in the mouth,” Meeks said. “They capitalized on easy plays. They played as a team down the stretch, made the extra pass. They’re a great team. We’re also a great team; we’ve just got to show that.”
Williams took the blame on several occasions throughout his postgame press conference.
“Rick [Pitino] just did a much better job with his team than I did with my team,” the 12th-year UNC head coach said. “I didn’t do a very good job with my team.”
His players dismissed those comments without hesitation. Meeks talked about a lack of toughness down the stretch and how he and his teammates failed to do what Williams asked them to do at times.
Paige was even more adamant in defense of his head coach.
“If you go back and look, you can point to countless possessions where they were the first to the floor,” Paige said. “He coaches us to box out. He doesn’t coach us not to box out, so it’s not his fault that we give up second-chance point after second-chance point after second-chance point. He preaches taking care of the ball, so it’s not his fault when we’re out there turning the ball over. He can take the blame, but the proof is in what happened in the second half.
“They didn’t beat us because of X’s and O’s, and that’s pretty clear.”
Statistics are a critical component of the game that coaches, fans and media rely on to explain wins and losses. On Saturday, the stats failed to deliver the complete picture.
Heels Outworked in Collapse
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