RALEIGH – The final margin was a respectable eight points against a ranked team on the road. The box score, too, was far from alarming.
In North Carolina’s 91-83 loss to N.C. State on Saturday, the Tar Heels’ defeat looked completely rational on paper. Seeing the first 28 minutes of the game, however, told more than any number did.
Though it came back, eventually cutting the lead to five in the final minute, North Carolina fell behind by 28 in the second half. And the Tar Heels – the same program under the same coach that won two of the past eight national championships running teams to death – were outscored, 20-0, in fast break points in the first half.
“(N.C. State) definitely played with more heart in the first half,” North Carolina’s Reggie Bullock said.
“A lot of that’s just effort, which is something we have to correct. That’s kind of disappointing,” Tar Heels point guard Marcus Paige said.
Even the final 12 minutes – when the Tar Heels consistently were able to trade stops for makes and cut the lead down – was overshadowed by how poor the first 28 minutes were.
“Regardless of how bad we played, we still had a chance at the end,” North Carolina forward James Michael McAdoo said. “But no moral victories here.”
The Tar Heels (13-6, 3-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) trailed by 19 at half, a challenging but not insurmountable deficit. In a telling sign for the evening, North Carolina, in dire need of a jolt of energy, airballed a jump shot on its first possession of the second half.
“I was dumb enough to think we could come back and win,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “... The kids kept playing, but it’s not a very good feeling right now. We’ve gotta have a greater sense of urgency, we’ve gotta have greater effort, we’ve gotta have better coaching.”
To Williams’ and the coaching staff’s credit, the Tar Heels attempted to correct problems even though they were winning. North Carolina came into the contest on a three-game ACC winning streak, but some of the victories were far from illustrious.
Against Maryland on Jan. 19, in particular, North Carolina followed a dominant, enthusiasm-filled first half with a putrid second half, though it held on to win.
So Williams and the staff went to correcting problems in practice – particularly transition defense, which has been spotty all season – only to see the issues become intensified Saturday.
“We made some progress, but we gotta be able to go into somebody else’s place and play well,” Williams said. “Guys need to go in there and focus and have some toughness about (them).”
North Carolina certainly has flaws, as any team that lost four first round NBA Draft picks would.
The problem right now is that North Carolina isn’t doing anything consistently well.
Beating good teams is difficult without something on which to rely, and even worse, one problem area seems to bleed into another for the Tar Heels.
“We never really settled down on offense, and that hurt us in transition defense,” Paige said. “We just didn’t have the effort we needed to in the first half (Saturday). We know who we are as a team, but we just failed to execute.”
As Bullock pointed out, the Tar Heels played well toward the end, earning 19 transition points of their own and looking more like a North Carolina team of old.
It just has to be there right away, he said.
“We should have started out the first half like that,” Bullock said. “You know coming into their place they’ll have a lot of energy, the fans will be in it. They just punched us in the mouth in the first half.”
The obvious point six conference games into the season is that the way North Carolina has played collectively is not sustainable for winning or for Williams’ mental well-being. The Tar Heels can’t continue looking like a second-weekend NCAA Tournament team for one stretch, then a team that won’t qualify for the NIT in another.
North Carolina lost for the first time in 14 tries against N.C. State on Saturday, yet still showed flashes of still being a good team, but none of it matters to Williams.
“All this stuff about streaks or people making comments, on game night, you gotta step out there and you gotta play,” Williams said matter-of-factly. “We didn’t do that.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com.