With Jawad Williams out suffering a stomach virus and Melvin Scott sidelined with a one-game suspension, the Tar Heels were already facing a difficult challenge. But when freshman center Sean May went down for the night 20 seconds into the second half, the situation became even more drastic, and the result was a 65-56 Iona victory in the first round of the 50th annual Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden.
"Tough game. Tough, tough game," said UNC coach Matt Doherty. "Nothing went right for us. And, the key now is to learn from it and bounce back. We play in 24 hours. And if we don't shake this loss off, learn from it and get our minds right and come out here [New York] 0-2. And that's the biggest challenge facing us right now."
The loss was indeed disappointing for the Tar Heels (7-3), but even more disheartening is May's injury.
The 6-foot-9 Bloomington, Ind. native broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot and is expected to miss up to eight weeks.
"He's had a stress reaction, and it's one of those situations where we put him in a boot for six or seven weeks and there's a 60 percent chance he gets better," Doherty said about May's left foot. "Or, you play on it and hopefully he gets better and the chances are he will break it. You hope it's a clean break and six to eight weeks he's 100 percent.
"In a weird way, I told him it's a good thing because we know what we're dealing with now," Carolina's third-year coach continued with his eyes welling up and a lump in his throat. "There was no way for that kid to play basketball where every time he stepped on the floor you didn't know whether it would snap or not. And, it finally happened. So now we know what we're dealing with and in six to eight weeks hopefully he comes back and helps us toward the end of February."
May said he was informed last night of the severity of the injury and the likeliness of the bone eventually breaking. May said he would continue playing, especially with Williams and Scott out of tonight's game.
"During the [Florida State] game I didn't feel it much, but after the game I couldn't walk," May said. "And today during the game I was limping up and down and I really couldn't do anything except I just tried to be out there because we were missing Jawad and Melvin, and I felt I had to play. It just came down wrong and just popped."
The absence of Williams and Scott, and May's injury clearly affected the outcome, but the performances of Carolina's healthy players did as well.
UNC methodically built a 15-6 lead with 12:46 left in the first half. A pair of 3-pointers by Rashad McCants (15 points, five turnovers) and Raymond Felton and an alley-oop jam by David Noel (12 points, six rebounds) highlighted UNC's scoring. But despite the lead, Carolina still appeared a bit sluggish, and that lethargy helped Iona go on a 12-0 run that spanned nearly eight minutes to take an 18-15 lead.
In fact, UNC went 8:42 without a field goal, ending the drought on Jackie Manuel's fast break layup, tying the score at 18 with 3:52 left in the half.
"Their zone really slowed us down," McCants said about the ugly stretch. "For a while we really didn't have an answer."
Iona's largest margin of the half was 25-18, but the game was tied at 27 at halftime after McCants nailed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
UNC's run, which reached 15-2, continued in the second half as the Heels moved ahead 33-27 on a driving layup by Felton (11 points, five assists, four turnovers) with 18:40 left to play.
But the Gaels (5-3) - coached by former NBA All-Star Jeff Ruland - didn't wilt, as they responded with a 15-2 run of their own to take a 42-34 lead with 13:30 remaining.
"In the beginning of the game I had a bad feeling about the game as far as us being focused and the whole environment," said McCants. "They were a short scrappy team who is really well coached. We didn't play well at all, definitely not."
UNC cut the deficit to 44-41 after Byron Sanders converted a layup after a nifty pass by Felton. But the Tar Heels got no closer.
"We were close and with a few more defensive stops we could have gone up," said McCants.
If missing three of its top six players wasn't enough, Felton picked up his fourth foul with 7:10 left. McCants also finished with four fouls.
But Doherty was making no excuses, and he shouldn't. Iona, which had 17 steals on the night, started four freshmen as did the Heels. And the Gales were without junior Greg Jenkins, the team's second leading scorer, and one of the team's most veteran players.
"We can't have 23 turnovers and shoot 32 percent from the field and expect to beat Iona. We rebounded the ball well, but besides that we weren't very sharp," Doherty said. "When you're wearing a North Carolina jersey, and you're a ranked team you're gonna take everybody's best shot."
UNC shot a paltry 32.3 percent (18-56) from the field, 57.1% (12-21) from the free throw line and had 23 turnovers to just 13 assists.
Courtney Field led Iona with 18 points while Ricky Silver and Maceo Wofford added 13 each.
The defeat was bitter for UNC, which had won the championship in its two previous trips to this tournament. But the loss of May can be devastating.
"It's gonna be something that we just have to work through it. He's a big part of our team, a bigger part than you guys even know," said a despondent McCants. "And, I think our big men are going to have to step up and I think they will."
"The main thing we have to do is bounce back," said senior forward Will Johnson, who played 19 minutes. "That's all we can do now."
And that task just got a lot more difficult.
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.