By R.L. Bynum
Since winning the 2017 national title, North Carolina can’t seem to shake a pattern of demoralizing, one-sided season-ending losses.
It happened for the fourth consecutive season, this time in the first round of the NCAA tournament’s South Regional on Friday night in West Lafayette, Ind.
After a rough first half, Armando Bacot helped No. 8-seed North Carolina (18–11) get it together on offense early in the second half. The defense never came around, though. No. 9-seed Wisconsin (18–12) seemingly couldn’t miss as the Badgers, shooting 48.1% from 3-point range, rolled to an 85–62 victory.
“We weren’t good enough or experienced enough or coached well enough or all of the above tonight,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “But it’s frustrating. We take bad shots and turn the ball over and that’s been an Achilles’ heel for us all year long. But the kids do want to do well. I never had a kid that wanted to turn the ball over. I’ve never had a kid that wanted to miss a shot.”
The big loss comes after losing to Texas A&M in the second round by 21 in 2018, to Auburn by 17 in the Sweet 16 in 2019 and to Syracuse by 28 in the second round of the 2020 ACC Tournament. It was the largest defeat of the season, easily surpassing the 13-point losses at Iowa, at Clemson and vs. Marquette.
Williams had won the first 29 first-round games of his coaching career before Friday’s 23-point loss, the worst NCAA tournament setback of his career and tied for the second-worst in program history. The Tar Heels hadn’t lost in the first round since a 76–74 upset loss in Seattle to Weber State in 1999 as a No. 3 seed.
As always, Williams was emotional as he talked about the end of his team’s season.
“The last game is extremely emotional,” Williams said. “I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been in the locker room four times — one as an assistant, three as a head coach, where the last game of the year was really emotional in a good way. I started the season when I was 70 years old. I feel like I’m 103 right now.”
Just getting through a season without any COVID-19 pauses is an accomplishment, and the Tar Heels were able to do that even though it didn’t end the way they wanted.
“I’m so proud of them as young people,” Williams said. “This was a hard year, guys. I’m so proud of our kids for going through this and it wasn’t nearly as much fun as it’s been in the past. I’m proud of that. ”
Carolina shot 38.5% from the floor and fell to 5–5 on the season when shooting under 40%.
“As one of the lowest field-goal percentages of any team I’ve ever coached, one of the lowest 3-point percentage, one of the lowest free-throw percentage — in some ways it may have been the worst at all,” Williams said. “But kids didn’t want to miss them, I know that.”
Wisconsin, which also knocked out UNC in the 2015 NCAA tournament, was paced by Brad Davison’s season-high 29 for Wisconsin, including 5 of 7 from 3-point range. D’Mitrik Trice added 21 points and three 3-pointers.
“He hit a lot of tough shots,” UNC point guard Caleb Love said of Davison, who scored the most points by an opponent all season. “He got going early with some threes, he was driving us to the basket. He was doing everything for his team that he could, and we couldn’t stop him. Plain and simple, we couldn’t stop him. Anything we threw at him, he came through for his team. We tried to trap him and get the ball out of his hands, but it didn’t work. He was a big-time player for them.”
Bacot scored all of his 15 points in the first seven minutes of the second half to lead the Tar Heels, with Love and Garrison Brooks each scoring 10 points.
“In the first half, they did a good job of not giving me looks,” Bacot said. “I was posting up, but the ball couldn’t find me. In the second half, I just decided that if I get it, wherever I get it, I was just going to drive the ball and try to make a play, be as aggressive as I could.”
Bacot and the other big men didn’t get many second shots as Wisconsin was the rare team to outrebound UNC, doing so by a 37–34 margin.
“They did a good job of double-teaming the bigs and boxing out ,” Bacot said. “They were sending all five to the glass, and I feel like we didn’t always do a great job of doing that tonight. They did a good job of doubling us and not letting us get to the boards.”
With UNC having trouble making shots from the perimeter, Wisconsin was able to pack in its defense against the Tar Heels’ big men.
“They sagged off and were doubling the post,” Love said. “We turned the ball over a lot out of that. A lot of times, we were settling for threes or settling for bad shots. We couldn’t get anything going in the first half especially. In the second half, we tried to come out with some fire, and we did, but we had dug ourselves such a big hole we couldn’t get out of it.”
A Micah Potter 3-pointer with 3:36 left in the first half capped an 8–2 run to give Wisconsin a 32–21 lead.
After Walton’s 3-pointer on his first shot with 2:06 left in the first half, Wisconsin scored the last eight points of the first half, including a Brad Davison 3-pointer, to lead 40–24 at halftime. It was UNC’s biggest first-half deficit since trailing Kansas by 17 in a 2008 national semifinal.
Carolina cut its deficit to 12 on a Love 3-pointer with 5:40 left and a Day’Ron Sharpe dunk with 4:55 remaining, but never got any closer.
No. 9 Wisconsin 85, No. 8 UNC 62
Final UNC season statistics
Bacot photo by Andy Hancock/NCAA photo via Getty Images