During North Carolina’s ill-fated comeback attempt against N.C. State on Feb. 24, the crowd at the Smith Center was never louder – the momentum never more in the Tar Heels favor – than when Kennedy Meeks made a layup to cut the Wolfpack’s lead to two points.
About 11 minutes remained, and UNC was in the midst of a 16-2 run that had nearly erased the 16-point deficit the Tar Heels had faced only moments before. N.C. State, though, responded to the surge, slowly expanded its lead and Meeks, so instrumental in the comeback, all but disappeared.
So, too, did Brice Johnson, Meeks’ primary partner in the frontcourt. Johnson was never much of a factor in that game, anyway – a 58-46 loss in which the Tar Heels faded down the stretch, their hopes of victory dissipating with each empty possession while time slowly ran out.
Entering the ACC tournament, that has become a familiar script for the Tar Heels, who could be without Meeks on Wednesday against Boston College. He has been suffering from a fever, coach Roy Williams said Tuesday, and his status is in doubt.
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If Meeks plays, Williams will count on him to reverse a troubling trend. He has scored a combined 14 points in UNC’s past three games.
Perhaps even more troubling than that, though, is how Johnson and Meeks have played – and how UNC has used them – in key moments of close games.
During the most glaring of the Tar Heels’ second-half collapses – at Louisville, at home against Virginia, at Duke, against N.C. State, against Duke, again – Johnson and Meeks have been all but invisible offensively.
What happened against the Wolfpack might be the best example, though. Meeks scored eight of UNC’s 16 points during that frenetic run that changed the game midway through the second half.
He didn’t score the rest of the game, and he attempted but one shot from the field – an ill-advised 3-pointer in the final minute that drew Williams’ ire. Johnson, meanwhile, didn’t attempt a shot from the field or from the free throw line during the final 111/2 minutes, and he finished with two points.
Asked how he’d explain the lack of production from his two primary post players in decisive moments of close games, Williams cited a lack of movement. He said Johnson and Meeks often become stagnant as games wear on.
“We tend to stand and as games wind down the stretch they need to move better, not worse, because the other team’s defense is going to be amped up a little bit more,” Williams said. “I think both of them, Brice is 57, 58 percent (from the field), Kennedy is down a little bit below that.
“Those are good numbers, but the numbers could be even higher if they could move more effectively without the ball and give us more movement.”
Johnson (12.6 points per game) and Meeks (12.1) are UNC’s second- and third-leading scorers. That makes their lack of scoring more noticeable when the Tar Heels have faltered in the second halves of close losses.
After UNC built an 18-point lead at Louisville with about 18 minutes to play, Johnson and Meeks combined to score three points the rest of the way. UNC led Virginia by a point with about 191/2 minutes to play, and Johnson and Meeks scored four points the rest of that game.
At Duke, Johnson and Meeks scored a combined 33 points by the time UNC built a 10-point lead with about four minutes to play in regulation. During the final nine minutes of the game – including five minutes of overtime – they combined to score three points.
Johnson fouled out early in overtime at Duke and Meeks finished with four fouls. Foul trouble, at times, has contributed to their lack of production late in games.
So, too, though, has an inability to deliver passes to them in the post. Or their inability to establish position.
“You could probably say it’s not being able to get it into the post,” Johnson said. “But I think it’s just – we need to play with a lot more poise, just be able to keep our composure, not turn it over in crunch time. Because a lot of teams have really capitalized on our turnovers.”
In the loss at Louisville, UNC began to fade with about 18 minutes left in regulation, and they were outscored by 28 points during the final 23 minutes.
The Tar Heels faltered during the final 191/2 minutes against Virginia, in the final nine minutes at Duke, the final 11 minutes against N.C. State and in the final 141/2 minutes at home against Duke.
In those 77 minutes – nearly two full games worth of time – Meeks and Johnson scored seven points apiece and combined to make six of 17 attempts from the field. Before those five games began to turn, they combined to score 93 points.
One of Johnson’s best statistical games came in the loss at Duke – he finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds, and made seven of 10 shots – and he had another strong game, at least statistically, Saturday in the rematch against Duke.
He finished with 17 points and made eight of 12 shots. Again, though, he played a minimal role in the offense when UNC most needed him. When the Tar Heels led by seven with 141/2 minutes to play, Johnson had 13 points.
He scored four points and attempted three shots from the field during the final 141/2 minutes and Meeks, who finished with two points, didn’t factor into the game’s most decisive moments.
Meeks, who didn’t practice Monday or Tuesday, has been tested for mononucleosis, strep throat and other ailments, and those tests have come back negative, Williams said.
“And his numbers have been down,” Williams said. “But you can’t just look at it and say it’s a wall, you’ve got to get either over it or walk around the sucker and get to the other side and play.”
That has been a challenge for the Tar Heels in the bigger picture, too. They held second-half leads at Louisville, against Virginia and twice against Duke, but in all of those games they failed to get to the other side.
That in large part is because the two players they most rely upon in the post went missing.
No. 19 North Carolina vs. Boston College
When: 2 p.m.
Where: Greensboro Coliseum
Projected starting lineups
North Carolina (21-10, 11-7 ACC)
G Marcus Paige 13.5 ppg, 4.4 apg
G Justin Jackson 10.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg
F J.P. Tokoto 8.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg
F Brice Johnson 12.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg
F Kennedy Meeks 12.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg
Boston College (13-18, 5-14)
G Olivier Hanlan 19.6 ppg, 4.2 apg
G Dimitri Batten 7.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg
F Aaron Brown 14.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg
F Patrick Heckmann 8.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg
C Dennis Clifford 6.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg
Key theme: The Tar Heels could be without sophomore forward Kennedy Meeks, who didn’t practice Monday or Tuesday because of illness. Coach Roy Williams said it wasn’t likely Meeks would play Wednesday and if he doesn’t, UNC matches up better with Boston College than it would have against Georgia Tech – the team the Eagles beat to advance to Wednesday. Boston College, which ranks 310th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, doesn’t have much of a post presence. UNC labored in a 71-63 victory at Boston College on Feb. 7. The Eagles, though, have won four consecutive games, and that streak began with a 79-63 win against N.C. State on Feb. 28.