If North Carolina’s basketball season ended Thursday, it was at least a fitting finish.
With a 10-point halftime lead and everything imaginable to play for, the Tar Heels couldn’t quite crack the 60-point plateau in an ACC Tournament first-round loss to a slightly favored Georgia Tech team (20-11) that was just looking to lose.
Thanks to yet another miserable shooting performance - 33 percent - the Tar Heels wilted after intermission, finally lost 62-58 and now are waiting and hoping for a wink from the NIT.
But given the way the second half of this season went for the Heels (16-16), a trip to the NIT would only be inviting more misery. If they just packed up the uniforms and went to work on improving for 2010-11, then at least they could avoid the indignity of a losing record the season after they won the national championship with ease.
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Carolina’s third loss of the year to the Yellow Jackets was marked by one of junior wingman Will Graves’ poorest shooting shows. Normally the team’s only reliable outside scorer, Graves backfired from the start and wound up missing 10 of his 12 shots, including seven of eight on 3-pointers.
All those duds, combined with Larry Drew II’s 1-for-9 work, was too much for reserve Tyler Zeller to overcome.
The 7-foot Zeller actually had his best game (17 points, 10 rebounds) and early on seemed to be the offensive spark Carolina had been missing since mid-December. With about four minutes left in the first half, the Heels led 28-15 and Greensboro Coliseum had some measurable energy for the first time all day.
Less than three minutes into the second half, Tech had tied the score at 36 and Carolina gradually slipped into the offensive shell that led to their 5-11 record in conference regular-season play.
Other than a 77-68 win at Wake Forest on Feb. 27, the Heels rarely broke the 70-point barrier and didn’t so much as approach it in a pair of losses to Duke (82-50 and 64-54), one of the losses to the Jackets (68-51) and one to Virginia (75-60).
Of all the many mysteries that marked ‘09-’10, the team’s inability to shoot and execute an offensive scheme will be remembered most. No one - certainly not Roy Williams - really saw it coming early, either. The team scored at least 80 points in five of its first 10 games, one of which was an 89-82 win on Dec. 1 over Michigan State in a rematch of last season’s NCAA title game. Another was a 77-73 win over Ohio State, which will be a high regional seed when the pairings are announced Sunday.
But once conference play began, the Heels morphed into the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, a flaw ACC opponents feasted on until hardly anyone on the team, other than Graves, aggressively even looked for shots.
“It’s been that kind of year,” Williams said. “We were up 10, but then we missed five, six shots from two feet ... They seemed to make their shots and we missed. But it’s what it is.”
Widespread injuries were obviously factor, but so was the play of Drew at point guard. In his first season running the floor show, the sophomore never came close to attaining the consistency the coaching staff was confidence he could deliver.
At the end, Carolina was the team you saw Thursday night. A team that couldn’t score 60 points in a game when the opponent had given up 179 points combined to Clemson and Virginia Tech in the previous games.
Eventually, that lack of shooting expertise turned out to be perhaps the last nail in the coffin.