The play did result in a jump ball, giving the Buckeyes possession, but the effort of UNC, and lack thereof from Ohio State on that play, was indicative of the afternoon. No. 24 North Carolina (8-3) outworked No. 12 Ohio State (9-2) on its way to an 82-74 win at the United Center in Chicago.
Senior Sam Thompson said it was unacceptable.
“I was very disappointed not in the sense that we just came up short, but in the way we came up short,” the forward said. “This is the second time we’ve dug ourselves a big hole and tried to fight out of it.”
Ohio State was sluggish early. After D’Angelo Russell scored the first two points of the game in transition, North Carolina went on a 17-6 run, getting to seemingly every loose ball and hauling in every 50-50 rebound.
The length of the Tar Heels was a major factor, forcing the Buckeyes to sacrifice looks near the basket for jump shots and giving UNC second-chance points. North Carolina, a team that entered the game fourth in the country in offensive and total rebounds per game, pulled down three offensive boards while building a 17-8 advantage at the 13:32 mark of the first half. UNC wouldn’t look back as Ohio State’s only lead was the 2-0 margin Russell provided.
Head coach Thad Matta said that his team’s inability to continue to stay focused and plug away possession after possession against the UNC defense was the difference maker.
“You’re going to have to make some tough shots in order to beat those guys just in terms of their length,” Matta said. “We had a couple possessions where we really, really moved the basketball and missed open shots, but you’ve got to stay and you’ve got to do it the next possession, you’ve got to do it the next possession.”
The Buckeyes were able to stay within striking distance in the first half thanks to their outside shooting. As the Tar Heels were punishing Ohio State inside, Marc Loving was connecting from beyond the arc. The sophomore, who finished with a game-high 19 points, hit all of his threes in the first half as Ohio State connected on six of their 12 tries from distance in the first half.
“I mean, they’re a long team, but we settled a lot,” point guard Shannon Scott said. “We shot 29 three-pointers, and we don’t need to shoot that many threes to win a game.”
Ohio State hit 10 of those threes in the game.
Their outside shooting as well as a four straight points from Jae’Sean Tate and Keita Bates Diop to close the first half, kept the Buckeyes in range as the teams went to the half with the Tar Heels leading 43-31.
The Buckeyes had more energy in the second half, led by a particularly active Tate, but it was too late.
Matta said the team needs to figure out how to have that energy from the beginning.
“You could say a positive is scraping, clawing back into it, but we’ve to figure out why we’re getting in that position in the first half and even early into the second half,” the coach said.
Ohio State traded buckets with the Tar Heels for much of the second half, but the inability of the Buckeyes to get a stop spelled their doom. UNC worked the ball into the middle of Ohio State’s zone and was consistently able to finish inside. The Tar Heels shot 50 percent inside the three-point line and had 34 points in the paint to Ohio State’s 20.
“Their zone, there’s a big hole right there below the free-throw line, but they’re so athletic and quick that sometimes they cover up for it,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “In practice, trying to get our blue squad to simulate that, we’d throw it in there and it was a bounce pass and a dunk almost every time, but they can’t simulate Ohio State’s practicing as much as they do and their athleticism.”
Despite what the coach might say, it looked like a practice for the Tar Heels in the paint Saturday. Part of the problem, as it has been all season, was the lack of production from the buckeyes post players. Ohio State’s three centers finished with a combined four points and eight rebounds. Starter Amir Williams had just one point and three boards, though he added four blocks.
In what has become a mantra for the coach this season, Matta pleaded for a better output from his post players after the loss.
Despite the disparities inside, Ohio State was able to claw back into the game in the second half. A Marc Loving three with 1:19 remaining made what had been an 18-point lead a 77-70 Tar Heels advantage. Despite seven missed free throws down the stretch from the Tar Heels, the Buckeyes couldn’t get any closer.
Thompson followed loving with 17 points while Russell had 11 points, eight rebounds and five assists. Scott finished with 10 points and nine assists.
In their second nonconference test this season, the Buckeyes got their second loss, handcuffing themselves once again with a lack of energy early.