By R.L. Bynum
GREENSBORO — It was probably too much to ask an inconsistent, young team to win four consecutive games for the first time this season, much less when it was North Carolina’s third game in as many nights against well-rested Florida State.
The Tar Heels nearly recovered from a rough first half to pull it off, though, despite shooting a season-low 33.8% from the floor.
After leading by five midway through the second half, Florida State just had too much at the end and ousted Carolina with a 69–66 victory in the ACC Tournament semifinals Friday night in the Greensboro Coliseum.
UNC’s third three-game win streak of the season ended like the others — without the elusive fourth win. It was the Tar Heels’ fifth loss this season by five points or fewer and the fourth by three or fewer.
“I think the energy level was fine,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “That’s what you can use as an excuse, and we’re not doing that. Florida State’s team beat North Carolina’s team, regardless whether it was three days in a row to not playing. That’s part of the game.”
Florida State, which faces Georgia Tech in the championship at 8:30 Saturday night, was the best team in the league for most of the season, and showed why with a stable of physical big men and backcourt defenders who were disruptive. It helped that, thanks to Duke’s COVID-19 positive test, it got a triple-bye into the semifinals.
“I mean, obviously we hurt, but I guess we fought back, saw some stuff we could take away from that,” said Bacot, who scored 12 points.
Balsa Koprivica led FSU with 17 points and three 3-pointers and Scottie Barnes added 11. Caleb Love led three Tar Heels in double figures with 13 points and Kerwin Walton scored 11.
Free throws were huge in the game as Florida State was 16 for 22 and UNC made 14 of 25.
Even with the loss, the Tar Heels have something to build on with the two wins this week and Bacot says that has the team confident.
“I feel like we know we can play with any team now,” he said. “We feel like if we play our best game and just go out there from the jump, we can be good. Obviously, we didn’t get the start we wanted today. But Florida State’s defense is a little weird, it takes a little adjusting to do just because of the switching and all that.”
The deep No. 2-seed Florida State (16–5) hadn’t played in six days and looked fresher from the start, while No. 6-seed Carolina (18–10) started out shooting cold and didn’t warm up until the second half.
A 12–5 Carolina run chopped an 11-point halftime deficit to four on a Love 3-pointer with 15:43 left. After a scoreless first half, Walton hit three 3-pointers in just over two minutes, with the third tying the game at 46 with 12:25 left. A Bacot bucket then gave UNC its first lead since the first six minutes of the game.
Day’Ron Sharpe’s bucket with 9:58 left pushed UNC’s lead to five, but a 6–0 FSU run gave the Noles a 54–53 edge on a Koprivica alley-oop dunk with 8:28 remaining.
A Walton drive cut the FSU lead to 62–61, then Davis’ three free throws gave UNC a 64–62 lead with 3:14 left. After a 3-pointer from Anthony Polite gave the Noles the lead for good at 65–64 with 2:06 left, UNC missed two chances to retake the lead.
“We were just trying to get some movement, trying to get open and hopefully get an open drive,” Love said of one of those late empty possessions. “But they’re so long and they denied all the passes and we couldn’t really get anything in the flow of the game. We just tried to throw something up because it was late clock and we didn’t get nothing done.”
After two RaiQuan Gray free throws with 34.9 seconds left put FSU up 67–64, Sharpe missed two free throws with 20.2 seconds. Koprivica then split a pair of free throws with 16 seconds left.
A Leaky Black bucket cut it to 68–66 with 2.7 seconds left, then the Noles’ M.J. Walker split a pair of free throws with 1 second left to make it 69–66. Carolina couldn’t get a final shot off.
“Bottom line is their defense late in the game was much stronger than our offense was,” Williams said. “We did not get a good shot at all after RJ made three free throws to put us up. We never got another good shot after that the whole time. Their defense was better than our offense.”
Gray made it tough for Walton or Davis to even get shots off in the first half and the Noles’ big men denied Carolina’s post players many opportunities. In the first half, UNC’s four guards took 20 shots and its four big men took five. Walton only took one.
“I challenged all of them, not just Kerwin,” Williams said. “If he’s only going to take one shot, that’s not helping us. I want him to play defense. I want him to do all those other things. He is getting better, but he’s our best outside threat by far. So, I told him he had to move better, and everybody else had to do a better job of getting him shots.”
FSU took leads of 12–6 and 22–11 on a pair of 7-0 runs midway through the first half.
UNC pulled within eight on a Love jumper with 34 seconds left, but Malik Osborne’s step-back buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave the Noles a 35–24 halftime lead.
The Tar Heels now wait for Selection Sunday to see where the NCAA puts them in the bracket for a tournament to be played entirely in Indiana.
Saturday will mark the second time in league history that no North Carolina-based team will appear in the ACC championship game. The only other time came in 1990, when Final Four-bound Georgia Tech beat Virginia in Charlotte.
FSU 69, No. 8 UNC 66
ACC pool photos