Heels’ habit of giving up big early leads catches up to them

UNC comes back from 17-point first-half deficit but can’t finish the rally at N.C. State, misses two chances to tie in final seconds

By R.L. Bynum

North Carolina’s strange habit of needing to rally from big deficits to win was bound to catch up to the Tar Heels again. 

It happened Tuesday night in their ACC opener.

For the seventh time this season, the No. 17 Tar Heels fell behind by double-digit points in the first half. They rallied again but could never take the lead and lost to N.C. State 79–76 at PNC Arena in Raleigh.

Potential game-tying 3-pointers by RJ Davis with four seconds left and Caleb Love at the buzzer missed.

“I was just trying to get the ball up and try to make it with a couple of seconds left in the game,” said Davis, who had Manny Bates closing out quickly on him. “Obviously, I know he’s a shot-blocker, so him coming at me I knew if I put the ball on the floor with his length … I know if I made one dribble, I had to get it off quick to get a good look.”

North Carolina’s Caleb Love hurdles to over N.C. State’s Manny Bates (15).

The Wolfpack (5–1, 1–0 ACC) became the third Carolina opponent (along with Texas and Iowa) of the seven to win after earning a first-half lead of at least 10 points. 

With the latest big first-half deficit, the Tar Heels (5–3, 0-1) added to the degree of difficulty this time by falling behind by a season-high 17 points in the first half. Carolina had multiple chances to tie the game in the final minutes but could never make the shot in that situation.

Center Armando Bacot, who led UNC with 16 points, couldn’t explain why the team keeps falling behind early.

“Man, I wish I could tell you,” he said. “We’ve just been coming out real flat, just not playing hard and then we get down and that’s when we want to play harder. When you’re playing a good team like we were playing today, sometimes it’s hard to come back.”

State snapped a five-game losing streak against the Tar Heels and a seven-game skid against UNC in Raleigh.

“I think when we got it to a one-point game and about two or three [times] in a row, we took bad shots,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “You can’t do those kinds of things. We’ve been hammering them pretty good for several years. They’re tired of that. And I think the difference in the game to me was their sense of urgency early in the game.”

Devon Daniels scored 21 points, Shakeel Moore 17 and Bates 14 to pace State. UNC had four players score in double figures, getting 11 from Love and Davis and 10 from Garrison Brooks.

North Carolina’s Garrison Brooks, battling N.C. State’s Jericole Hellems, finished with 10 points and seven rebounds.

N.C. State was consistently able to drive to the basket off of screens to get easy baskets, particularly in the first half.

“We just weren’t really following the ball-screen principles,” Bacot said. “We went over it in practice and we had a great game plan but we just didn’t do it well enough. They set such high ball screens, you got to really focus in and run back. We just all around didn’t do a good job.”

N.C. State shot 52.8% from the floor and 66.7% from 3-point range in the first half but it didn’t seem likely to last. It didn’t, as the Wolfpack cooled off to 39.3% from the floor and 25% from 3-point range in the second half. But they hit enough shots at key moments to hold on.

“You’ve got to play the screen on the ball the way we practice every day and we didn’t do that at all,” Williams said. “And then, all of a sudden, they’re getting open shots.”

Particularly in the first half, Williams said his team didn’t show a sense of urgency on defense. He said that played out in not covering the backboard on rebounds, not boxing out and not grabbing enough loose balls.

“You can’t continue to do that the whole game,” Williams said. “The other thing is just paying attention to the details of what we’re talking about in the scouting report, and we’ve got to do a better job.”

Coach Roy Williams questioned UNC’s sense of urgency, particularly in the first half.

Davis, who scored many of his points with gritty drives and savvy, said that after the game Williams questioned their hustle.

“It’s the little things that we have to fix,” Davis said. “Obviously, the way we played the last four minutes of the first half we should have played in both halves.”

A Moore 3-pointer capped a 14–2 run to give State a 30–17 lead with 9:27 left in the first half. Two Pack free throws by Thomas Allen with 3:56 left gave State a 46–29 lead before UNC turned up the defense.

A 13–3 UNC run to end the first half trimmed the Heels’ deficit to 49–42 by halftime. During that run, Andrew Platek drew two charges after drawing another earlier in the first half. 

UNC’s Andrew Platek draws one of three first-half charges, this one on N.C. State’s Dereon Seabron.

Platek’s 3-point play on a baseline drive with 8:38 left cut State’s lead to 63–62. But the Pack responded with a 12–2 run capped by a Braxton Beverly 3-pointer with 5:37 left to shove the lead to 75–64.

A 9-0 UNC run trimmed it to 77–73 when a Walker Kessler block of a Bates shot led to a Love dunk with 2:45 left. But the Heels missed a few chances before a Daniels free throw with 1:03 left pushed the lead to five.

After Kerwin Walton split a pair of free throws with 17 seconds, Beverly missed two free throws with 14 seconds left. Love made two free throws with 10 seconds left to cut it to 78–76.

Daniels split a pair of free throws with nine seconds left before the perimeter misses by Davis and Love at the end.

The Tar Heels are off until they visit Georgia Tech (4–3, 0–1) on Dec. 30. The Yellow Jackets, who, like UNC, have beaten Kentucky, visit UAB on Wednesday night.

N.C. State 79, No. 17 North Carolina 76

UNC statistics through eight games

Pool photos by Ethan Hyman

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