A potential bubble-bursting loss to Pitt puts UNC’s NCAA hopes in jeopardy

By R.L. Bynum

CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina’s rare detour through the bubble to earn an NCAA tournament berth careened into a ditch Tuesday night.

The scenarios for the Tar Heels to make the NCAA tournament were already challenging. But losing 76–67 to a lowly but physical Pittsburgh team that was 179 in the NET rankings has made it quite the uphill fight with UNC’s NET ranking sinking from 37 to 45.

In UNC’s precarious situation, it couldn’t afford to lose to the Panthers and suffer Carolina’s first Quad 4 loss (it became a Quad 3 loss Thursday when Pitt jumped to 159). Unlike the Tar Heels’ last time on the bubble in 2000 when they made the Final Four, this bubble looks likely to burst and lead to an NIT berth.

“We took them seriously for sure, we just came out flat,” said Caleb Love, who led UNC with 19 points, 15 in the second half. “We dug ourselves a hole and it was too deep to come back late and there was not enough time on the clock. We weren’t making enough shots and we weren’t playing defense.”

The Panthers (11–16, 6–10 ACC), who led by as many as 21 points, used a 21–2 first-half run to take control against the turnover-prone Tar Heels (18–8, 10–5), who now, more than ever, need a Quad 1 win Saturday at streaking Virginia Tech.

UNC Coach Hubert Davis said that Monday’s practice wasn’t very good although Tuesday’s practice was a little better.

“We just didn’t play the way that I hoped, anticipated, thought that we would play,” said Davis, pausing between some of his words. “With so much to play for, so much motivation to compete and to have fun? It’s just very disappointing.”

Davis has said that good defense, rebounding and taking care of the ball are important for this team, and it didn’t come through enough in those areas. UNC had more rebounds (29-28), but committed 13 turnovers, leading to 22 Pitt points, and allowed the Panthers to shoot 66.7% in the first half.

“So, we’ve identified those three areas that we have to be good at in order to put ourselves in a position to compete and be successful,” Davis said. “And to not check all three of those boxes? To say that, in the second half, we actually cut it to six with the ball? It’s hard to believe that we were even in that position with the way that we played, especially in the first half.”

Kerwin Walton, who scored in double figures for the first time since mid-November, had all 11 of his points in a 12–4 run that cut UNC’s deficit to 59–46 with 7:08 left. 

Love scored seven consecutive Carolina points before an Armando Bacot bucket cut the Pitt lead to 69–63 with 1:49 left. Manek (who scored 12) made a big interception after he had cut the lead to six. But he couldn’t connect on a pass to Love, resulting in a turnover. John Hugley’s 3-point play with 1:32 remaining pushed Pitt’s lead to seven and another Hugley bucket put the game away.

Pittsburgh’s defensive pressure on the ball caused Carolina problems all night, as did Hugley, a 6–9, 280-pound center (game-high 18 points), who neutralized Bacot (seven points and five rebounds). The Panthers’ feasted on corner 3-pointers all night, and many times those were wide-open shots.

UNC’s half-court offense mostly consisted of passing outside the arc with rare penetration. When the Tar Heels were able to drive, that often didn’t go well. They were called for four charging calls.

“I just feel like we shot a lot of jump shots in the first half and weren’t getting to the rim and weren’t finishing around the basket,” Love said. “They kind of took us out of everything.”

Ithiel Horton scored 19 points for Pittsburgh, with Jamarius Burton scoring 14 and Mouhamadou Gueye adding 11. Pitt was 10 of 17 from 3-point range.

Leaky Black, who scored 11 points, said that UNC’s defensive effort was obviously lacking. The Tar Heels even went to a zone at times to try to slow the Panthers.

“It was a little strange,” Black said of playing zone. “But, at the end of the day, we’ve got to find a way to get stops. I feel like they were scoring at will on us from start to finish. I feel like the zone kind of bothered them a little bit. It just wasn’t enough.”

After Manek scored the game’s first five points, Pittsburgh scored the next seven. Horton made three 3-pointers during a 21–2 run that gave them a 29–14 lead with 6:19 left in the first half. Fifteen of Pitt’s first 23 points were off UNC turnovers.

Carolina trailed 40–23 at halftime after its worst shooting half of the season (27.6%). The 17-point halftime deficit was the third-largest for UNC in Smith Center history and largest since Georgia Tech led 47–27 on Jan. 4, 2020.

UNC shot 27.6% in the first half, the second-lowest of any half in the Smith Center and only the third time the Tar Heels have shot under 30% in a half in the arena. The Tar Heels shot 55.2% in the second half, but that wasn’t enough.

The Tar Heels pulled within 13 and then played defense well at the other end. But Hugley banked in a 3-pointer as the shot clock was about to expire on a four-point play, and another Horton 3-pointer quickly pushed the lead back to 20.

The Tar Heels head to Virginia Tech at 4 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2), where they could get that elusive Quad 1 victory. The Hokies (16–10, 8–7) won their sixth consecutive game Monday with a 62–53 home victory over Virginia. UNC won the first meeting 78–69 in Chapel Hill on Jan. 12.

Pittsburgh 76, UNC 67

ACC standings

UNC season statistics

DateScore, record/
day, time, TV
(current rank)
November (4–2)
583–55 exhibition winHomeElizabeth City State
983–67 win, 1–0HomeLoyola Maryland
1294–87 win, 2–0HomeBrown
1694–83 win, 3–0RoadCollege of Charleston
2093–84 loss, 3–1Uncasville, Conn.Y — No. 5 Purdue
2189–72 loss, 3–2Uncasville, Conn.Y — No. 16 Tennessee
2372–53 win, 4–2HomeUNC Asheville
December (5–1, 1-0 ACC)
172–51 win, 5–2HomeX — Michigan
579–62 win, 6–2, 1-0 ACCRoadGeorgia Tech
1180–63 win, 7–2 ACCHomeElon
1474–61 win, 8–2 ACCHomeFurman
1898–69 loss, 8–3 ACCLas VegasZ — No. 4 Kentucky
2170–50 win, 9–3 ACCHomeAppalachian State
January (6–3, 6–3 ACC)
291–65 win, 10–3, 2-0 ACCRoadBoston College
578–73 loss, 10–4, 2-1 ACCRoadNotre Dame
874–58 win, 11–4, 3–1 ACCHomeVirginia
1588–65 win, 12–4, 4–1 ACCHomeGeorgia Tech
1885–57 loss, 12–5, 4–2 ACCRoadMiami
2298–76 loss, 12–6, 4–3 ACCRoadWake Forest
2478–68 win, 13–6, 5–3 ACCHomeVirginia Tech
2658–47 win, 14–6, 6–3 ACCHomeBoston College
29100–80 win, 15–6, 7–3 ACCHomeN.C. State
February (3–2, 3–2 ACC)
190–82 OT win, 16–6, 8–3 ACCRoadLouisville
587–67 loss, 16–7, 8–4 ACCHomeNo. 9 Duke
879–77 win, 17–7, 9–4 ACCRoadClemson
1294–74 win, 18–7, 10–4 ACCHomeFlorida State
1676–67 loss, 18–8, 10–5 ACCHomePittsburgh
19Saturday, 4, ESPN2RoadVirginia Tech
21Monday, 7, ESPNHomeLouisville
26Saturday, 2, ESPN or ESPN2RoadN.C. State
28Monday, 7, ESPNHomeSyracuse
5Saturday, 6, ESPNRoadNo. 9 Duke
ACC TournamentBrooklyn
X — ACC/Big Ten Challenge; Y — Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off; Z — CBS Sports Classic

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