Despite watching his team lose eight of its previous 10 games, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said was sure the Tar Heels could beat Boston College on Saturday – and begin a five-game winning streak that would vault the them to the NCAA tournament.
But after falling 71-67 at Conte Forum, he and his players are left to face the true post-season reality: at 3-9 in the ACC, they can no longer finish with a .500 regular-season league mark. And with an RPI in the 80s, their chances of earning an at-large NCAA bid have pretty much evaporated.
“We’ve got to win the ACC tournament [and an automatic bid], that’s pretty much it, point-blank,’’ freshman John Henson said after his team shot 39.1 percent, got rebounded by four, and dropped to second-to-last place in the league standings (14-13, 3-9).
“It’s life or death a couple weeks from now, and I hope as a team we treat it like that. We’ve just got to respond.”
They certainly need to respond better than they did against the Eagles (13-13, 4-8), who entered the game with the same conference record, but showed more poise the stretch.
Trailing 63-53 with 7:30 left after a Rakim Sanders field goal, the Tar Heels countered with a 7-0 run that cut BC’s lead to 63-60 with 4:53 remaining. But two minutes – and a couple of miscues by both teams – later, Henson was called for goaltending on Reggie Jackson (17 points, 7 assists, 7 rebounds) on a play that looked like a good block.
“I felt like it was going up; because usually when you scoop it, it’s always going to be going up,’’ said Henson, who finished with 11 points and seven rebounds. “Unfortunately, they didn’t call it for us; so it was a big part of the game.”
UNC came again, though, cutting it to 65-62 on a Henson jumper, then 67-65 on a three-point play by Larry Drew II. But Sanders (14 points) scored for the Eagles, Deon Thompson (17 points) missed a shot for the Tar Heels, and BC’s Jackson made two free throws with 31 seconds left to pretty much seal it.
“We had a much better comfort level,’’ said Eagles coach Al Skinner. “I didn’t feel like we felt like we were in a hurry. Guys really showed some patience and really took some time to see where the plays were.”
The outcome was particularly frustrating, because in stretches, UNC gave glimmers of the Tar Heels of old – beating the Eagles down the floor twice in the first half after made buckets to score transition baskets of their own; showing good ball movement on a couple of plays in the second half. And they were buoyed early by the return of sophomore forward Tyler Zeller (9 points, 7 rebounds, 16 minutes), who missed 10 games with a broken bone in his right foot. (Although their depth was still hurt by a hip injury to reserve forward David Wear, who played only eight minutes.)
“Seeing those plays – it should be enough for the team to continue to play that way,’’ said senior Marcus Ginyard. “Somewhere, we just don’t see that that is the way we should be playing or the way we should continue to play, because it just doesn’t last long enough.”
As a result, if the Tar Heels don’t win the ACC Tournament, they might have to settle for playing in the NIT – a 32-team tournament featuring the squads not quite good enough for an at-large NCAA bid. But UNC still has work to do in order to earn that invitation, too. Although the NIT has no rule stating teams must have a winning record to earn a berth, every squad that has competed in it has had at least an even record.
With four games left, UNC must now win two to finish with a winning regular-season mark.
“We’ve got to find the pride to finish out the year playing better. If we don’t’ have that, it’s going to continue to be ugly,’’ Ginyard said. “We’ve got to find that sense of pride as a team to go out there and play better. Just play better – we don’t have to play amazing, play great, just play better. You know?”