Following Sean May's injury and a tough loss to Iona, the Heels pulled together for a gritty if unattractive win against St. John's. The real test was Sunday, as vestiges of team rhythm and momentum from before the injury faded away. And fade away they did. While a good deal of attention has been paid to the team's failure to score in the closing 10 minutes of regulation and 5 minutes of overtime against the Hurricanes, the Heels fared little better during the game's first 20 minutes, struggling to find offense around the basket and missing more than their share of good looks on the perimeter. Carolina's 18-0 run, while impressive in the moment, was sparked less by impressive halfcourt execution or defensive intensity and more by a passive zone that encouraged Miami's continued infatuation with the three-point shot. Misses and long rebounds brought a temporary return of the Tar Heels' transition game and high percentage baskets. But with the exception of that one burst, Carolina looked like a team without any offensive continuity, and without a clear sense of where to find a quality shot, particularly with the game on the line.
It's hard to know what else to expect, however. Without May, everyone assumed Carolina would struggle in the paint, and they did. With Rashad McCants still limited by a bad finger on his shooting hand, the Tar Heels' best remaining offensive weapon was also firing at less than 100 percent. Combine these factors with the following: Miami was at home, with the support of a small but enthusiastic crowd, and played like it could not miss in the first half. The Hurricanes played down the stretch with a considerably more seasoned lineup than the Tar Heels, and handled its final possessions with great poise. Carolina's freshmen, meanwhile, made the kinds of mistakes you would expect freshmen to make. Factor all these variables together and it would have been surprising for UNC to leave Coral Gables with anything other than a loss.
The good news is this: as life without May becomes increasingly real, the Tar Heels can begin to come to grips with their new roles and responsibilities. Signs of the transition were evident, even in the bleakness of Sunday's game. McCants found opportunities to post up smaller guards and posed matchup problems as a legitimate inside option. Raymond Felton drove to the basket more frequently in an effort to find points and to dish off for layups. Carolina switched defenses frequently in an effort to confuse the opponent and change the pace of the game in their favor. None of these maneuvers worked perfectly, and none worked when needed most. But as the team continues to learn, these and other tricks of the basketball trade will offer important weapons to a team that must play shorthanded for at least another eight weeks.
Rather than panic about another late collapse and unravel over anxieties about Carolina's game management (or lack thereof), fans ought to remember how close the Tar Heels were to winning a game in which they played poorly. Of all the points UNC left at the line, one more free throw in regulation would have turned the tide. One bucket--any bucket--to extend the lead would have brought about the same result. Without a doubt, the scoring droughts and lousy execution will plague the Tar Heels against stronger opponents if they continue in the coming games. But the problems, although repeated from other recent games, are not quite yet a trend.
Moreover, although the loss was ugly, Matt Doherty and his charges leave Miami with bags full of material for teaching in practice. When the Heels lost to Kentucky and Illinois, it was too easy to chalk the games up to mismatches in experience and talent. Throwing out unreasonable expectations after Carolina's 5-0 start, the Wildcats and Illini should beat UNC on paper, and they followed through on the court. The Iona loss, meanwhile, looked like enough of a fluke that the temptation would be to ignore it. After all, how often will any team have to play without three of its top players, especially under the weird circumstances of UNC's ill-fated trip to New York?
Carolina's fourth loss, however, is impossible to brush off. After snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, coaches and players alike have to sit up and take notice. For the coaches, they must re-evaluate their teaching of late-game scenarios and consider whether the slow-down game is the best weapon for holding a lead, especially with a team whose natural inclination is to run. For the players, the loss will offer a bitter lesson that no game is ever truly out of reach until the final buzzer, and that every possession is precious, particularly in overtime. Every time the coaches need to remind their players about the importance of recognizing game situations and acting accordingly, all they will need to do is refer back to McCants's unnecessary switch off Darius Rice as time ticked away in regulation. When you lose a game you truly should have won, if you're a competitor, you go back to the drawing board and determine you won't let it happen again. If all goes as it should, a year from now, a January 2003 loss to Miami will still matter, but only because it made a young team better.
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