CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – A troubling postseason trend for North Carolina has been early leads and the corresponding momentum evaporating entering the halftime locker room.
Against Miami in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals, UNC built a 12-point lead before the Hurricanes closed the first half on a 9-2 run over the final 1:40. In the semis, Duke cut its 13-point deficit to seven points with a 7-1 spurt in the 83 seconds before halftime.
It happened yet again on Sunday in Greenville as Arkansas outscored the Tar Heels, 16-6, over the final 3:15 to pull within five points at the break.
“The common theme is we stunk the last couple of minutes,” Roy Williams said at his press conference on Tuesday when asked about the trend.
The 14th-year UNC head coach is not one to segment games, so he’s never harped on the closing stretch before halftime or the start of the second half. He attributed the late half issues to an inability by his team to stay sharp mentally, while also noting the competition in question has been NCAA Tournament quality.
ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson agreed.
“I don’t know if there’s necessarily an issue, I think it’s just us staying focused all the way through no matter what the score is,” the junior wing said. “It’s human nature to sit back and kind of settle whenever you see that you’re up 17 points.”
That line of thought nearly sent the Tar Heels home to Chapel Hill for good. Instead, UNC will fly to Memphis on Wednesday to prepare for Friday’s Sweet 16 tilt with South Region No. 4 seed Butler, which has proven its ability to rally from substantial deficits this season. The Bulldogs trailed DePaul by 20 on Jan. 21 before charging back for a 70-69 overtime win.
The negative momentum swings have been a talking point in recent days, according to Theo Pinson.
“After the game, even though we won, we were saying, ‘we have to finish halves better,’” Pinson said. “That’s been killing us the last couple of games… We’ve got to do better in the first half and just finishing out going into halftime with momentum on our side.”
Any indication as to how Joel Berry’s right ankle is?
“We put him in a boot when we came back just to protect him. We’re going to have a light practice today of shooting and dummy offense, which is what we did last week. We’re going to let him shoot free throws. We’re getting a group over there that’s getting a little bigger than I want it to be because he’s going to shoot five and Kenny [Williams] is going to rebound, and then Kenny is going to shoot five while he rebounds. Tomorrow we’ll look at it before practice and see what it looks like. I think he’s better now than he was after the game.”
What would you say to the state legislature about the importance about acting before we lose the NCAA Tournament for the next scheduling cycle?
“Well, I would say two things. It shouldn’t just be about athletic events. That’s the most important thing. It should be about what’s right and wrong, and what we have now is wrong. You’ve heard me say before, I’m not the dumbest coach. I may not be the smartest, but I’m darn sure not the dumbest. Well, I have a hard time figuring out why we think our law is what’s right when the 49 other states don’t have that. Are we that much smarter than 49 other states?
“So I’d say two things. One, I don’t think it should be just because of athletic events. I’m in that world. I see student-athletes walking these halls in that world. I think it’s wrong to deny them opportunities to play at home. We’ve had some tremendous wins for us, Duke, State, everybody, having a home crowd with us. Duke paid the price this weekend because they had a very significant road crowd down there. The biggest thing is, guys, it’s just not right. I’ll stand up and say that on any building anywhere as long as you promise not to push because it’s just not right. It’s not just about athletics. It is just not right.”
You’ve spoken out about HB2 several times and had a Donald Trump comment that drew a lot of attention. Why do you feel so comfortable speaking out about political topics? Does that come from watching how Dean Smith handled such things?
“Probably a little bit of everything there. At Kansas one time I got involved in a local political thing to build a second high school and some people that really wanted to continue our dominance in football thought I had suggested communism there, so I stayed out of the political realm for quite awhile. What we have in our country right now is just to me a political system that’s scary because we don’t have any cooperation. We have people on one side that are republicans and another side that are democrats and we have nobody being willing to compromise for what’s best. If you bring it up, well, I’ve got to stick with you. If you bring it up, I’ve got to stick with you. I think that’s wrong. Flat-out wrong. That’s extremely important to me…
"There was an older politician that retired last year who said it was just so hard to get anything done because you couldn’t go across the aisle and convince someone that something should be based on its merit as opposed to who brought it up. That’s the biggest thing right there. The HB2, I don’t want to have our state looked at the way its being looked at, because that’s not right. That really bothers me. Those two things there are based on what I think is right. I don’t want to be compared to Coach Smith on that because he did what he thought was right, but this is nowhere near what he did and in those turbulent times. But I’m afraid we’re going to get into more turbulent times because we’re over here and we’re over there and nobody’s willing to compromise. It’s just a troubling time for me. I’m a basketball coach and everybody will say he should stick to what he knows, but you guys know that I probably don’t know a lot of basketball at certain times, either, so why in the heck can’t I say anything about anything else?”