Troubling Trend

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – For the third time in seven games, No. 15 North Carolina executed poorly down the stretch in Tuesday’s 58-46 loss to N.C. State.

Despite falling behind the Wolfpack by 16 points with 15:54 to play, the Tar Heels rediscovered their offense in scoring baskets on six consecutive possessions to cap a 12-0 run. Kennedy Meeks’s offensive rebound and putback with 11:04 to play cut UNC’s deficit to 38-36.

Yet as the game clock ticked down to zero, the Tar Heels looked the part of the team that allowed double-digit second-half deficits to slip away at Louisville on Jan. 31 and at Duke last Wednesday.

“We made a nice run, but runs don’t do you any good unless you’re tough enough to withstand and keep going,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said during his postgame press conference.

UNC committed six turnovers over its next 14 possessions as N.C. State increased its lead to 56-46 with 1:03 to play. Isaiah Hicks threw the ball to Ralston Turner in a halfcourt set. Justin Jackson’s pass in transition went through J.P. Tokoto’s hands in a 2-on-1. Joel Berry’s attempted entry pass was stolen on the perimeter by Trevor Lacey.

“We can’t do that,” Brice Johnson said. “At the end of games, we can’t turn the ball over the way we did. We have to be able to hold onto it. Every possession is key for us, especially in a game like that because it was a grind-out game.”

Quite possibly the most glaring error came with UNC trailing by five with under two minutes to play. Marcus Paige received a pass in the right corner in front of the Tar Heel bench and had an open look for three, but fired the ball inside to Tokoto, who was expecting the shot.

Lennard Freeman stole the pass and Lacey pushed the Wolfpack’s lead to eight on the other end with 1:32 to play with a layup and free throw.

“We ran ‘quick’ one time in the corner and I was open,” Paige said. “I thought J.P. was looking at me because he was open under the basket, too, but I probably still should have shot it, and that kind of started the whole thing. Just not sound execution down the stretch.”

Williams agreed, saying, “It looked like a team in those last 3-4 minutes that had never had a practice.”

The 12th-year UNC head coach, who lost at home to N.C. State for the first time in his career, pointed to a lack of poise in describing his team’s poor late-game execution, highlighting Meeks’s 3-point attempt with 43 seconds to play.

“I’ve never had a play where our big guy shoots a 3-point shot unless he could really shoot threes,” Williams said. “Joe Wolf and Tyler Zeller and those guys could do it, but Kennedy just didn’t know what to do, so he shot it. We had a set play called twice in a row and didn’t execute that, so that’s the coach’s fault.”

The Tar Heels missed 11 of their final 15 field goal attempts.

Meeks attributed the breakdowns to a lack of concentration.

“I think we were more focused on the scoreboard more than focused on finishing the plays and working to get our teammates open,” Meeks said. “We really failed at that today.”

UNC led Louisville by 18 points at the KFC Yum! Center before committing eight turnovers over a six-minute stretch that let the Cardinals back in the game. The Tar Heels scored just one point over the final seven minutes of regulation before losing in overtime, 78-68.

At Cameron Indoor Stadium last week, UNC led Duke by 10 points with 3:51 to play before missing a layup and the front end of a pair of 1-and-1s as the Blue Devils forced overtime with a 14-4 run and escaped with a 92-90 victory.

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