Saturday afternoon I watched arch-rival Duke fall to Notre Dame because the Blue Devils’ best player, Jabari Parker, had a (real) bad game, the worst since he arrived in Durham. Fast forward just a bit more than a day and #19 North Carolina (10-4) fell to Wake Forest (11-3) because the Tar Heels’ best player, sophomore shooting guard Marcus Paige, had his worst game of the season, if not of his career. UNC went down at the Joel by the final of 73 to 67, in a game where I found two moments being key in the loss.
In the first half, with Carolina up by six and shooting a free throw, the Heels would miss the shot, but someone would tip it out and head coach Roy Williams‘ squad had the chance to go up by eight, with a pretty silent, and definitely not full, arena watching. Bad ball handling by freshman point guard Nate Britt, the Deacs get the turnover, which UNC had 17 of, and are on their way to a fast break and from up possibly being up eight UNC was up four. After a few bad shots Wake took their first lead of the game by one. That stretch of about a few minutes felt like it took the wind out of the young team, and from then until half way through the second half, the Heels felt disorganized and having mental lapses on both sides of the ball.
“We weren’t tough enough, physical enough, strong enough or explosive enough to finish the plays,” Roy Williams said after the game.
Then, just as North Carolina was seeming to get its settings calibrated once again, there was a scramble on the floor for the ball. In that senior shooting guard Leslie McDonald threw an elbow. Which put the Tar Heels down a half dozen, and with the ball and momentum, to down six and the Demon Deacons shooting two and getting the ball as well. By the time that was all done Carolina was behind by nine and even more important, once again deflated as the opposition managed to keep them in check once again. To be noted, that play should have been stopped when McDonald was on the ground and the Wake Forest player jumped on top of him. But it is what it is.
Without a doubt Carolina did not lose this game due to their bigs, as junior power forward James McAdoo scored 13 points and had eight rebounds, and it could have been more if the forward did not get three fouls in the first half. Another one with a trio of fouls in the first 20 minutes was sophomore small forward J.P. Tokoto, but he too finished with a good game, but managed once again to have a breath taking dunk. As did sophomore forward Brice Johnson, who came off the bench for the second game in a row, also having a nice dunk in this one (see below). Both players ended with a dozen points and nine rebounds a piece. Once sophomore Joel James comes back this core of players should just get better and better.
On the perimeter it was a different story, as Paige and McDonald combined for 2 for 15 from three and neither was a factor in the game, especially on the offensive side. While this time it was a lot more evident, since North Carolina lost, the last couple of games it feels like Paige has had a hard time getting in the groove early on in games. For the first time this season we can actually say that the shooting guard that could not play in this one, due to his mistakes, might just have been the difference between a win and a loss. But again, as I said before, it is what it is.
After the game coach Williams stayed a bit longer in the locker room to speak to his team, Paige said this of the meeting…
“He made the point that at some point you have to make a decision to outwork other teams,” Paige said. “This team isn’t talented enough to just show up and beat somebody because we’re more gifted than them. Especially in our league, as much as teams scout. We can’t just show up and win because we have Carolina on our jersey.”
Coach Williams had spoken about this before North Carolina encountered Wake Forest, telling the freshmen that the level of play would go way up once conference play begins. This is something that all on the squad need to think about for the rest of the season. With just one team in the Atlantic Coast Conference still unbeaten, Syracuse, this year’s conference schedule is going to be hard for many programs. If North Carolina wants to be in the thick of things they need to focus on the game in front of them and play it hard and smart for forty minutes.
The most powerful of statements came from McAdoo, short and (not) sweet…
“We’ve got to change, that’s the biggest thing,” McAdoo said. “We can’t keep letting coach [Williams] down.”
The squad has a few days to turn that statement into action as Wednesday North Carolina will host Miami in the friendly confine of the Dean Dome.