LAS VEGAS – North Carolina played in the greatest game of the 2015-16 season eight months ago, rallying from a 10-point deficit only to lose on a last-second 3-pointer from the wing. On Saturday, the Tar Heels may have played in the greatest game of 2016-17, once again having to charge back from a 10-point second-half deficit only to fall short on a deep dagger.
There’s a heightened level of stress involved when playing from behind. Every play increases in importance, every shot and turnover in magnitude. It’s rewarding yet incredibly taxing effort to string together defensive stops on one end while scoring efficiently on the other.
Arguably Example 1A in the UNC record books of the draining nature of a comeback is the 2008 Final Four loss to Kansas, a game in which the Tar Heels rallied from a 28-point deficit to within a Danny Green 3-pointer that dropped below the rim for a split second before hopping out that would have cut the margin to two points. Its energy reserves exhausted, UNC had nothing left to keep it close.
The Tar Heels led for 3:43 against the Wildcats, falling behind by 12 with 7:39 to play before halftime and grinding their way to their first lead in over 34 minutes at 98-95 with 1:37 to play.
There will be much written and much debated about UNC’s lack of execution in those final two minutes, and for good reason. The Tar Heels had a two-point lead and the ball with 47 seconds to play, and yet lost 103-100.
With the loss, UNC is now 0-2 against top-10 opponents.
“We were right there against one of the best teams in the country, and I guess that's all you can take from it,” said junior wing Justin Jackson, who scored a career-high 34 points. “I mean, we kept fighting, which is what I'm extremely proud of everybody on that team. And we were right there. There's just a couple things we've got to fix.”
This loss began, however, during Kentucky’s 11-3 run in the first half that pushed a four-point lead to 38-26, similar to how Indiana’s 26-9 spurt to open the ACC-Big Ten Challenge matchup penciled in a victory for the Hoosiers despite UNC’s efforts to claw back within four points late.
For the fourth time in five games, the Tar Heels have fallen behind by seven points or more in the first half. Overcoming a 28-13 deficit against Tennessee is one thing; doing it against a Final Four caliber opponent is something else.
“We cannot dig those holes that we have dug ourselves into early against good teams,” sophomore wing Kenny Williams said, “because good teams are going to be harder to come back against. You exert more energy trying to come back. Once you get there, you’ve spent so much energy trying to get back it’s tougher to keep the lead.”
The Tar Heels dwelled in their national championship game loss this summer, rehashing the minor mistakes that cost them a ring and demanding of themselves to learn from those painful reminders. And while it’s simple enough to focus on those miscues in the final seconds, these types of games are won over the course of 40 minutes.
“Coach stresses in practice every single day that every play in the game is very important,” junior guard Joel Berry said, “and I think that game showed us that it is important and that's what we have to take from it. Every single time we get out on the court, no matter what or who it is, we have to make sure that play that we're on, that it's important to us.”
There is reason for optimism. Despite foul trouble in the post, Berry returning from an ankle injury, Theo Pinson still decked out in a suit on the bench and seven missed free throws, UNC was in position to beat a team that will be in the national championship conversation come March.