Inside Carolina/Jim Hawkins

UNC's Lesson Learned in Bloomington

The Tar Heels' early season tear came to a halt at Assembly hall.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Roy Williams sat down at the makeshift media table following North Carolina’s 76-67 loss to Indiana, methodically scanned the stat sheet as he’s apt to do, and then unleashed his fury about what had just taken place at Assembly Hall.

In the moments following his 1,000th game as a head coach, Williams criticized his team for not matching the Hoosiers’ intensity, for not being the aggressor and for making silly mistakes. He told reporters that he had to coach better and his players had to play better. He even put his own fan base on blast for not matching the raucousness of Indiana’s home arena, save for the annual visits from rival Duke.

When asked by a reporter what specifically went wrong in the first half, Williams went back to the well, taking the opportunity to vent even more.

“Everything,” he said. “I told you, we weren’t ready to play. I can’t say we didn’t line up correctly. We didn’t shoot free throws, we didn’t rebound the basketball, we didn’t get the loose balls. At the half they had more second-chance points, they had five or six fast break points, we had none. Everything. Everything.”

UNC trailed 26-9 less than nine minutes into the game, entered halftime down 41-29 and rallied to cut its deficit to four points with 4:52 to play before Indiana answered with a 10-3 spurt to secure the victory.

Perhaps most surprising is what the 14th-year UNC head coach did not say. One week removed from pumping the brakes regarding the Final Four potential of his squad after throttling the field at the Maui Invitational, Williams elected not – or possibly just forgot – to supply a curt “I told you so.”

His bluntness may draw the ire of random observers, but his honesty is equal parts piercing and refreshing. On Tuesday, Williams described the Indiana test as a “different animal” than what his team had encountered through the first seven games, and that description lacked any hyperbole.

That aspect of the game was overlooked by many due to UNC’s experience. Its starting five on Wednesday consisted entirely of juniors and seniors that have all played in 16 postseason games the past two seasons. While Indiana’s fan base deserves credit for turning Assembly Hall into a daunting environment, it was nothing new for the veterans on this team.

Even so, the Tar Heels failed to match Indiana’s energy off the tip and allowed the Hoosiers to play the aggressor. As Williams put it, Indiana took it to his team and his team backed up.

“Everybody is not going to roll over and play dead just because North Carolina walks in,” Williams said. “Some people even get more fired up. I would say this is probably the best crowd they’ve had for a non-conference game this year. It’s North Carolina. So let’s match that enthusiasm. If I go into your house, I know it’s going to be tougher for me to beat you in your house, but I’m by God going to play harder to beat you in your house.”

His veterans knew that, and yet were equally as surprised and unable to explain the early discombobulation.

"It's a big-time game on a big-time stage, and we just let them come out and hit us in the mouth first,” junior point guard Joel Berry said. “I thought we were going to be ready."

There was plenty of motivation involved for the Hoosiers, given the fact that UNC ended their season in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 last March.

"They built a whole wall dedicated to us,” junior wing Justin Jackson said. “So why would they not come out for the one game they've been waiting for this whole entire time? Hats off to them. They're a great team and they made some big plays. But we've got to go back and learn from what we did wrong and then get better."

There were cracks beyond UNC’s veteran core. The stage seemed too big, the lights too bright at times for sophomore wing Kenny Williams and the Tar Heels’ trio of freshmen.

That quartet was on the court together as Indiana’s lead ballooned to 17 midway through the first half. They were not granted a reprieve from the onslaught of adversity as Williams paced the sideline with a pocket full of timeouts. As he’s been known to say in the past, they found their way into the mess and it was their job to play their way out of it.

It’s November, and lessons like the one taught at Assembly Hall on Wednesday are hard to come by, but incredibly valuable for the months to come.

“It was great that [the underclassmen] had this experience early in the season because we have a lot of big-time games coming up, especially in conference play,” Berry said. “To be able to get this experience for them and then for all of us in general - this was my first time playing here - to be able to get that early in the season, I think that will help us a lot as we move forward."

This loss may have confirmed that UNC is nowhere close to a finished product, but that’s what Williams has been telling us all along.

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