Heels lose it at the line

CHAPEL HILL – Free throws have been a consistent weakness of North Carolina's all season. And once again, the result of those struggles hurt the Tar Heels.

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This time it cost UNC what would have been a crucial victory, turning into a 75-67 overtime loss to rival N.C. State before a sellout crowd of 21,750 at the Dean E. Smith Center. And in the process, any remaining hope the Tar Heels had of reaching the NCAA tournament has likely vanished.

While the Wolfpack converted all 22 of their free throws, Carolina was a miserable 7-19.

"I'm proud of our guys, I really am," said a clearly despondent UNC coach Matt Doherty." After the game we had on Saturday, for them to invest the energy and emotion to come into a game like this and play as hard as they did, I was proud of them.

"I'm disappointed we came up short," Doherty continued. "A lot of guys are really hurting right now and they should be hurting, but I'm proud of them.

"Turnovers [and] foul shots, I think, tell the story."

Yet despite UNC's woes at the line, it still had numerous chances to either put the game away late or win it at the end. And like too many times this season, the Heels just didn't get the job done, even with a golden opportunity handed to them when State's Julius Hodge went out with his fourth foul with 13:21 left in regulation. The Tar Heels were outscored 15-11 in Hodge's absence, with all of NCSU's points coming either inside or from the free throw line.

"They went more to their power game," David Noel said when asked why State had success when Hodge was on the bench. "They were able to get the ball down low and take advantage of some inside moves."

The Heels did recover, and actually retook the lead after Hodge returned.

A 3-pointer by Raymond Felton gave Carolina a 59-53 lead with 4:10 left in regulation, but UNC would score just one more field goal – a steal and slam by Noel – while the Wolfpack tied things up on a Josh Powell layup, two Hodge free throws, a Scooter Sherrill 3-pointer, and a Hodge pull-up jumper with 8.3 seconds left.

Just like in a loss at Clemson 10 days earlier, the Heels didn't call a timeout - neither then nor 30 seconds earlier up two - and their only shot attempt was a Jackie Manuel 3, which was blocked by Hodge right in front of UNC's disappointed bench.

Ironically, it was one of Carolina's better shooting days from the field. Prior to overtime, the Heels made 24 of 47 attempts, but were a paltry 7-18 on foul shots.

"That game was ours," said Rashad McCants. "In my mind we won that game, we just didn't hit free throws. That's about it. Our free throws are the only thing that really took the game away from us."

McCants gave UNC a brief 64-62 lead in the extra period on a nifty drive and layup while being defended by Hodge. But Sherrill, who finished with a game high 22 points, drilled a long 3 to put State up for good. The Wolfpack (15-9, 8-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) wouldn't hit another field goal, but wouldn't need one either. NCSU was 10-10 from the free throw line in overtime.

"We just have to get back to the basics," Jawad Williams said. "I missed a front end of a one-and-one which I think really hurt us. You have to be able to step up to the line and hit free throws."

After one of Felton's worst halves of the year in which he was 1-7 from the field with three turnovers and zero assists, the Latta, S.C. freshman put in a warrior-like effort in the second half.

He scored 13 points in the final half, registered all three of his assists, and had four of his six rebounds in a truly gritty effort.

"No one wants to win more than Raymond," Doherty said. "I think he wanted to win so much that he was trying to hit home runs every time he had the ball instead of trying to hit singles. We talked about that at halftime."

But it wasn't enough. The missed free throws and ill-timed turnovers were Carolina's main enemy, and now, as they stand at 14-13 overall and 4-9 in the ACC, thoughts of the NCAA tournament have pretty much been dashed. In fact, unless UNC wins a minimum of two more games, they won't even reach the NIT.

Hodge finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists for the Wolfpack, while Powell added 15 points and seven boards. For the game, State outrebounded the Tar Heels, 43-28.

UNC was paced by McCants and Felton's 16 points. Williams cored 14 and Noel added 13.

State opened up a 12-4 lead as each of its starters scored. But Carolina responded with a 12-2 run over the next 4:11 to take a 16-15 lead on a Manuel left-handed reverse layup off a feed from Felton with 10:36 left in the half.

State got back the lead and led for most of the half, although the Tar Heels did go up 24-23 on a Noel layup with 5:25 left before intermission.

State led at the half, 28-24.

Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He also covers the ACC for the Wilmington Star-News/Morning Star and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.

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