The question now for North Carolina is how it responds to its most difficult defeat of the season, the 92-90 overtime loss Wednesday at Duke that left the Tar Heels stunned and sullen after one of their best performances still wasn’t enough.
Are they galvanized by what they accomplished at Duke, where they held a 10-point lead with less than four minutes to play in regulation? Or does the fallout of that loss linger for a while, haunting them?
“You’ve just got to learn,” junior forward Brice Johnson said inside UNC’s quiet locker room after Wednesday night turned into early Thursday morning. “If we play with that type of effort that we did tonight, I don’t see many people beating us.
“That’s one of the best games we’ve played all year, both ends, and we just didn’t make the little plays at the end.”
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UNC’s first chance to respond comes Saturday against Georgia Tech at the Smith Center. The Tar Heels are entering their stretch run – five regular-season games remain – and they’re doing so after having lost four of their past five.
Two of those losses, at Louisville and at home against Virginia, came amid troubling second-half collapses. One of them came at Pittsburgh, which made a higher percentage of shots from the field than any UNC opponent in 30 years.
And then came the loss at Duke, where UNC rallied from an early deficit and took control of the game in the second half only to relinquish that control in the final minutes.
There were no shortage of mistakes late in regulation: a collision on a rebound that allowed Duke to retain possession, an unforced turnover, missed free throws. UNC coach Roy Williams called timeouts four times at the end of regulation and in overtime to draw up plays, and none went as planned.
“Plain and simple, I’m heartbroken from it,” Johnson said. “I thought we did the little things to get the win, but we didn’t.”
UNC has had a couple of days to process the defeat, to sulk in it, if need be.
Junior guard Marcus Paige, who made two of his 11 shots from the field and tied his season low with five points at Duke, said Wednesday he couldn’t focus on the positives – that the Tar Heels did a lot of things well in defeat.
One thing was clear enough, at least, even in the haze of a heartbreaking loss.
“That’s the way we’re supposed to play,” Paige said, “and you see what can happen when we play that way.”
Georgia Tech at No. 15 North Carolina
Where: Smith Center
Projected starting lineups
North Carolina (18-8, 8-5 ACC)
G Marcus Paige 13.6 ppg, 4.2 apg
G J.P. Tokoto 8.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg
F Justin Jackson 9.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg
F Brice Johnson 12.7 ppg, 8 rpg
F Kennedy Meeks 12.7 ppg, 7.6 rpg
Georgia Tech (12-14, 3-11)
G Travis Jorgenson 3.8 ppg, 3.3 apg
G Tadric Jackson 4.3 ppg, 1.2 rpg
F Marcus Georges-Hunt 13.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg
F Demarco Cox 8.8 ppg, 6 rpg
F Robert Sampson 5.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg
Key theme: UNC and Georgia Tech meet for the first of two games in 11 days between the teams. The Tar Heels have lost four of their past five, and though the Yellow Jackets have struggled, they have remained a good defensive team (27th nationally defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com). Georgia Tech’s past five losses have come by a combined 15 points. The Yellow Jackets, who have struggled offensively (306th nationally in effective field-goal percentage) will be without starting guard Chris Bolden, who is the team’s fourth-leading scorer (6.9 points per game). He is serving a six-game suspension for a violation of athletic department policies.