LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The shooting slump continued for No. 2 North Carolina and All-American guard Marcus Paige at the KFC Yum! Center on Monday night as the rampant misfires finally resulted in a loss that snapped its 12-game winning streak.
UNC shot a season-low 34.5 percent on 20-of-58 shooting in the 71-65 loss to No. 19 Louisville. That marks the Tar Heels’ lowest shooting percentage in 51 games, dating back to a 27.9 percent effort in a loss to Iowa on Dec. 3, 2014.
“Needless to say, we didn’t shoot the ball very well,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said during his postgame press conference.
Neither team found the bottom of the net often in the first half. Louisville led 28-27 at the break in shooting 32.1 percent compared to UNC’s 29.2. The rims appeared to be unlocked to start the second half as the teams combined for 12-of-19 shooting in the first five minutes.
UNC’s shooting touch cooled down thereafter. The Tar Heels missed 18 of their final 26 shots, 10 of their final 12 and all five field goal attempts in the final 20 seconds trailing by four points. Meanwhile, the Cardinals stayed dialed in, shooting 53.1 percent after halftime in moving within a game of the Tar Heels in the ACC standings at the midway point of the conference slate.
For UNC, Monday’s shooting woes continue a trend that dates back 16 days. The Tar Heels, once considered the best offensive team in the country, have shot below 38.5 percent in four of their last five games.
“We haven’t shot the ball well,” Williams said. “I’ve told some of you guys, some of you guys played golf, if you get the yips, you go to the long putter. Hell, there’s no long putter in basketball. You’ve got to knock the ball in the damn basket. It’s a pretty easy thing. You’ve got to take good shots and make good shots.”
The Cardinals entered Monday’s primetime matchup as one of the nation’s top defensive squads, and that reputation held true in their ability to limit the interior touches by ACC Player of the Year candidate Brice Johnson (15 points) and Kennedy Meeks (4). The duo combined for 10 field goal attempts and 10 free throws attempts.
“The matchup zone that they were playing kind of looked like a zone but it wasn’t,” Johnson said. “It was just very difficult for us to be able to get it inside because one of the guards on the outside would come into the middle. If a post player was to flash into the middle, there was someone right there behind him. Our guards were trying to get it there, it was just so much clutter in there, we really couldn’t do anything about that and get it in there. It was very difficult to play against that zone today.”
With Louisville often fronting UNC’s bigs on the block and backside help taking away the high post, entry passes were few and ineffective, especially in the first half.
“Their zone, they went man-to-man a few times, too, but their zone made it difficult for us to get the ball inside to our big guys, who didn’t move nearly as well as we need to move inside,” Williams said.
With perimeter shots failing to drop once again – UNC shot 17.6 percent (3-of-17) from 3-point range, reducing its ACC-worst shooting percentage in league play to 23.5 – the Tar Heel guards and wings attacked the rim off the dribble after halftime, which resulted in better quality shots. Those looks, however, were typically contested.
“They’re just long,” sophomore point guard Joel Berry said. “They have seven-footers down there. They were just active. They were switching from a man to a zone in the same possession, so they were flying around. We had some opportunities at the basket and we didn’t capitalize on them.”
Berry’s streak of 12 straight games scoring in double figures came to an end as he managed just seven points on 1-of-10 shooting, although Paige’s ever-growing slump became more of a focal point in the game’s late stages.
When Louisville’s Damion Lee (24 points) stepped up and knocked down some critical buckets in the second half, UNC had no counter. That’s a role that Paige has often filled during his career, but in a pivotal ACC road contest, he scored nine points on 3-of-13 shooting.
The senior combo guard is shooting 21 percent from the floor (12-of-57) and 13.9 percent from 3-point range (5-of-36) over his last six games.
Yet another question about his All-American’s errant touch of late frustrated Williams at the podium.
“Guys, I mean I’m not getting on you, but damn,” the 13th-year UNC head coach said. “He hasn’t shot it worth a frickin’ frank for four or five games. Am I supposed to put him out and send him to Siberia? He’s one of the greatest kids I’ve ever coached, I’m going to stick with him, I’m going to coach him, he’s going try to take shots. I don’t have any potion I can rub on people.”
Without any potions readily available, a course correction is needed as UNC’s tough February slate got off to a shaky start in Kentucky.