Team Nike tops Heels, 76-72

CHAPEL HILL -- Those with unrealistic expectations for the 2002-2003 Tar Heels have been silenced. Reality set in Wednesday night in the form of a 76-72 loss to Team Nike at the Smith Center.

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The Carolina squad that played with fire and put up triple-digit points in an exhibition win on Saturday was flat early and late Wednesday, lacking the consistency needed to close out the win.

And that reality of inconsistency can be expected with a group that includes nine underclassmen.

"We've got some things to work out," head coach Matt Doherty said postgame. "I'm not panicked – there are going to be days like this with this young team."

Certainly not helping matters was the lack of two major contributors because of injury. Rashad McCants (shoulder) and Jackie Manuel (groin) have missed the last three days of practice and sat out tonight's game as a precautionary measure.

Jawad Williams, who had 11 points and nine rebounds, said the absence of the two wings was noticeable.

"Those guys play a big part in this team. We lost a lot of scoring, rebounding and defense."

And that doesn't include the aggressiveness and emotion that McCants contributes – which was sorely lacking for long stretches on Wednesday.

"They could have played tonight, but I wanted to make sure they were as close to 100 percent as possible for the game that matters," Doherty said of the two injured Heels. "I want to win every game – I'm as competitive as the next guy – but a couple months or a year from now, no one is going to care about this game. What will matter is whether we beat Penn State [on Monday] or not."

Sean May was the most impressive Tar Heel of the evening, posting a game-high 23 points and 11 rebounds, as well as five steals.

"He's got the talent to do that all the time, senior Will Johnson said of Carolina's only true impact post player. "Sean can shoulder that load."

Raymond Felton's final numbers (22 points, five assists and six turnovers) only tell half the story – literally – as he totaled just two points, one assist and four turnovers in the second half.

After trailing by as many as nine points in the first half, the Tar Heels battled back, closing the half on a 15-4 run to lead 47-43 at the break.

"I don't know if we were sharp to start the game," Doherty said. "Why is that? I don't know. I thought the middle of the first half we were very sharp [on offense] and were very active defensively."

The lead reached 11 points, 67-56, in the second half on a Williams free throw at the 9:54 mark, but that's when the Carolina offense grinded to a halt.

For the rest of the game, UNC would make only one more field goal and would total just five points.

Team Nike scored the last 13 points of the game.

"We've got to learn how to finish teams," said Melvin Scott, who struggled from the field, shooting 2-of-8 from beyond the arc and had eight points. "That's all that happened tonight – we should have taken care of the ball and finished them.

"We had a nice little lead, but [what cost us was] decision-making, [bad] shots, we were rushing things – just finishing them off down the stretch and playing good defense. We're growing as a team. As a team we need to learn – we're a new team, really, and we need to learn to finish together."

The Tar Heels' second half numbers included 10 turnovers, 32-percent shooting and 11 percent on three-point attempts.

Doherty noted the quality of the opponent and the value of the experience.

"These teams are better than when I played – those guys are all pretty talented players. It's a good experience for our guys – better than beating a team by 30. It's good for our team to go through experiences we can't simulate in practice."

It should be noted, however, that this eight-deep Team Nike squad lost to Duke by 40 and South Carolina by 16 earlier this month.

Regardless, while the Tar Heels are upset with the loss, their confidence does not appear to have been shaken.

"Our guys don't like to lose – and they're going to do what it takes to make sure it doesn't happen again," Johnson said. "Without a doubt this team is tough enough to handle this loss. Every guy in here is ready to go to practice and ready to play another opponent. I know every guy in here is chomping at the bit to compete again."

Doherty said, "I hope [the loss] bothers them a little bit, but I don't want it to eat at any confidence they have. That's the main thing – maintaining confidence. Yes, let it hurt, let it burn, but don't lose confidence in yourself."

The team gets back to practice on Friday and there is clearly work to be done to prepare for Monday's season opener against Penn State, which tips-off at 7:00 p.m.

"We've got a lot of work to do, but with a young group you have to go slow," Doherty said. "Things aren't habit yet. Timing of plays, position on defense. But they're getting better every day. I've got a great group of kids that work hard and very competitive.

"They're very disappointed that they lost this game, and I want it to hurt a little bit, but also want them to know that it's not the end of the world. Monday is the game – that's the one that matters."

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