By R.L. Bynum
All of North Carolina’s early-season issues aren’t going to be resolved at once, but at least the Tar Heels made some progress Wednesday night in Atlanta. But it wasn’t enough with repeated defensive lapses to avoid an 0–2 ACC start.
For the first time since the Tar Heels’ season opener, they never trailed in the first half, much less by 10 points as they have seven times. UNC shot better from the perimeter, but the numerous turnovers were again hard to overcome and showed that its young backcourt still has plenty of room to improve.
Carolina went scoreless and Jose Alvarado scored four of his game-high 20 points in the final minute to lead Georgia Tech (5–3, 1–1 ACC) to a 72–67 victory.
It wasn’t another terrible start to the game but the loss means that, at 5–4, the Tar Heels are off to their worst season start since going 4–5 to start the forgettable 2001–02 season. Anytime there’s a reason to mention that 8–20 season, there’s a reason to worry. It’s only the sixth time in program history that UNC has lost its first two league games (also in 1979–80, 1996–97, 2008–09, 2012–13 and 2013–14).
With 18 turnovers against Georgia Tech, UNC has committed at least 18 in five games, going 2–3. UNC has as many games with a turnover percentage of more than 20% (three; N.C. Central 21.8%, Georgia Tech 22.3% and Stanford 26.6%) as last season (vs. Notre Dame, vs. Syracuse in the ACC tournament and at Louisville) and 2 seasons ago (vs. Kentucky, vs. Gonzaga and at NCSU). They had only 2 such games in 2017–18 and in 2016–17 and none in 2015–16.
Perhaps the biggest problem that the Tar Heels carried over from the loss at N.C. State was defense. It was never more evident that the last 6:53 of the game when the Jackets outscored the Heels 19–6.
Coach Roy Williams shook up the starting lineup, inserting three freshmen in the lineup for the first time in 14 seasons. Regular starters RJ Davis, a freshman, and sophomore Armando Bacot were joined by senior Andrew Platek and freshmen Kerwin Walton and Day’Ron Sharpe.
It was the first time Williams started three freshmen since the Tar Heels lost to Georgetown in the NCAA East Regional in 2007 with a lineup that included Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson and Brandan Wright.
Williams said the switch wasn’t because of his team’s consistent bad starts but because of the poor defensive grades in the N.C. State loss from Garrison Brooks, Leaky Black and Caleb Love. They all came off the bench for the first time this season.
Williams said on his radio show on Monday that his team’s defensive grades for the game were the worst in his coaching career.
“The defensive grades sucked. They weren’t just bad, they were terrible. The hardest one was Garrison,” Williams said of sitting three regular starters. “His defensive grade wasn’t as bad as the other two. At the same time, I try to treat everybody fairly. Garrison has got to be held to a high standard defensively. Leaky, I think, can be one of the best defensive players in the league. He’s got to be held to a high standard defensively and Caleb as well. His defensive grade was really bad at North Carolina State.”
Instead of showing the team clips of the N.C. State loss, Williams showed the team the entire game tape to point out their mistakes, particularly on defense. Brooks said that watching it was tough and his conclusion was that he let his team down on defense.
“It’s tough. I’m a senior sitting down for a freshman, but he’s playing better than me,” said Brooks, who had nine points and a season-high-tying 11 rebounds. “It’s either get better or sit on the bench.”
It was the first game, other than senior night last season, that Brooks hasn’t started since his freshman season.
Black, who scored a season-high 10 points, said they were told about the lineup change Wednesday morning during the shootaround but he could almost see it coming.
“It kind of hurt me,” Black said. “But, then again, I’m not playing the way we need to play right now, so it was a reality check.”
Black was critical of the team’s approach offensively and said that the Tar Heels needed to do a better job of getting the ball inside in the second half.
“I feel like we all are being selfish right now,” Black said. “I feel like we’re not all bought in completely. I feel like there’s so many problems.”
It wasn’t necessarily how Walton started that was impressive but how he played after halftime. Three second-half 3-pointers from Walton, who had nine points, four assists and one turnover, helped UNC sink a season-high eight 3-pointers. The previous high was seven against UNLV. It was the first time this season that five Tar Heels hit 3-pointers.
Love had missed 13 consecutive 3-point attempts before making the first of his two 3s against Georgia Tech.
Bacot led UNC with 14 points.
For only the third time this season, UNC led 10 minutes into the game with a four-point edge. After leading by 12 at that point in the opener at that point against College of Charleston, they had only done it against Texas (+2) before Wednesday night.
An 11–1 UNC run gave the Tar Heels a 22–11 lead with 6:11 left in the first half. The Jackets responded with an 11–2 a little later to cut it to 28–26 before the Tar Heels took a 35–29 halftime lead.
A Moses Wright layup with 11:04 left gave Georgia Tech its first lead at 50–49.
A Walton 3-pointer started a 7–0 UNC run to take a 61–53 lead with 6:53 left. But the Jackets’ 11–3 run tied it at 64 on an Alvarado jumper, then an Alvarado bucket gave Tech a 66–65 lead with 3:24 left.
Sharpe’s inside bucket cut Tech’s lead to one but Alvarado’s drive with 45 seconds left pushed it to 70–67.
After Davis missed a long 3-point attempt with 17 seconds left, Alvarado made two free throws with 12 seconds left to make it a five-point game. Platek missed a 3-point attempt with two seconds left.
With the Syracuse game that was to be played on Jan. 2 postponed, the Tar Heels play next at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Miami (ESPN). The Hurricanes (4–3 overall) are off to an 0–2 start in the ACC after a 70–55 home loss to Pittsburgh and an 80–78 loss at Virginia Tech. Miami plays host to Clemson at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Georgia Tech 72, North Carolina 67
Pool photo by Chris Compton