By Doc Kennedy
For a team fighting for its postseason life, UNC showed a less-than-inspired effort for the first 20 minutes against Notre Dame in South Bend on Wednesday night. The Irish didn’t score for the first six minutes of the game, but the Tar Heels were experiencing some offensive futility of their own and were not able to put Notre Dame in a hole early. As a result, when the Irish hit their stride later in the half while Carolina could not hit the proverbial sand after falling off a camel in the desert, UNC scored only 19 points and found itself facing an 8-point deficit to a 10–17 team that was an abysmal 2–14 in the ACC and came into the game ranked 14th of 15 teams in the league in defensive efficiency.
Carolina opened the second half as a much different team, getting after it on defense, passing the ball, getting it inside and erasing the Irish lead before the under-16 timeout. Seeing Carolina play with passion, energy, and precision in the opening of the second half made the first-half effort particularly frustrating.
But after actually building a little cushion, the Heels reverted right back into their old habits, not looking inside, jacking up quick shots (usually from 3) and essentially the last 10 to 12 minutes of the game were a rock fight, with neither team able to build much of a lead. UNC was able to do just enough despite two questionable plays to Leaky Black up 1 with the ball and the Heels escaped with a much-needed win, only their third on the road this year.
With that in mind, here is the more relief than joy edition of the Good, Bad, and Ugly Report:
After a slow start, Bacot got into a groove and was a real handful for the Irish in the second half, posting his 67th career double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Just another day at the office, though UNC fans would like to see him hit a few more of his free-throw opportunities.
When UNC was struggling early on, Nance was the lone offensive bright spot for the Heels, scoring nine of their first 11 points on the way to posting his own double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds, to go with five second-half assists. Although Nance continues to struggle shooting the basketball, Carolina does not win the game without his scoring early and his rebounding and passing in the final 20 minutes.
Rebounding and second-chance points
This was the difference-maker in the game. Carolina was able to take advantage of the perimeter-oriented Irish for a 52–33 advantage on the glass and 23 second-chance points on 23 offensive rebounds. Big numbers in a game you win by four points.
UNC’s bench performance
The message board and social media coaches have been calling for Hubert Davis to play his bench more, and to be fair, his bench rotations have seemed odd at many points this season. But the bench is often like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, in that you never know what you’re going to get. Carolina played five bench players on Wednesday for a total of 29 minutes, and those five players were a combined 1 of 10 from the field with two rebounds and two turnovers. It’s pretty obvious Coach Davis doesn’t have a lot of trust in his bench, and tonight was a reason why.
UNC’s first-half futility
The Tar Heels only managed 19 points on 5 of 27 shooting, good for 18%, the worst shooting percentage in a half since 1980. UNC had zero assists in the first 20 minutes and shot 0 of 11 from 3. That is literally lowering the bar.
After that 0 of 11 start, Carolina did shoot 2 of 12 in the second half, both courtesy of Caleb Love. That means UNC finished the game 2 of 23, or 8.7% from three, and many of those were wide open. The Heels have been at or near the bottom 10% of 3-point shooting teams most of the season. We are now 28 games into the season. This is who they are, and Brady Manek isn’t walking through that door. Again, UNC is 10–1 this season when shooting over 32% from three. In other words, Carolina simply needs to be a below average shooting team, instead of a putrid one, to have a chance to string some wins together.
While it was certainly not one for the highlight reel, it was a road win in a game UNC simply could not afford to lose. On the other hand, Carolina can likely not afford to drop any of the remaining three games if they want to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday.
Squeaking by Notre Dame is not likely to help the Tar Heels in the NET rankings. But, at this point UNC, will be defined by its Quad 1 wins, or lack thereof. Carolina plays a Quad 1 opponent at home on Saturday when Virginia comes to town, and after dropping a head-scratcher to lowly Boston College on Wednesday, the Hoos likely will come to the Smith Center with a laser focus. Only this time hopefully the Heels can counter with a full game from Bacot, who was injured early in the close loss at Virginia in January. UNC’s mission at this point is simple: it must beat UVa and Duke at home for a potential pair of Quad 1 wins, avoid a slipup at Florida State, and possibly win two games in Greensboro to not be sweating out Selection Sunday.
There were flashes on Wednesday of what this team can be, but it may be a tall task to do it for five straight games with their backs against the wall. First-half vs. Notre Dame UNC is not going to get it done. Regardless, Carolina needs to bring a sense of urgency to the next three weeks or the Heels will be NIT-bound.
Doc Kennedy is an alum and longtime UNC fan, and a former high school and college basketball coach who wrote this report for years on Tar Heel Blog.
Photo via @UNC_Basketball