North Carolina’s season ended Thursday night with a 79-72 loss against Wisconsin – a defeat that will be remembered for the Tar Heels’ inability to hold a second half lead, again, and for a comeback attempt in the final minute that proved futile.
UNC this season had struggled to hold second-half leads and lost games at Louisville and at Duke and against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament after leading by double digits in the second half. The Tar Heels never led by that many Thursday night, but for a while they had all the momentum and hope.
UNC led by seven points with a little more than 11 minutes to play and it appeared the Tar Heels – their toughness and character questioned in December and January, their ability to play with the best of their competition questioned in February – would continue their season.
A victory Thursday night in an NCAA tournament Midwest Region semifinal would have put UNC one game from the Final Four. After UNC led by four with about seven minutes to play, though, Wisconsin scored nine consecutive points.
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Fittingly, perhaps, Frank Kaminsky, the 7-foot center who’s among the favorites to win national player of the year honors, began that run with a 3-pointer – his only 3 of the game. Kaminsky’s shot seemed to energize his team and, in some ways, deflate the Tar Heels.
UNC coach Roy Williams called a timeout in the midst of that run, after the Badgers had scored nine consecutive, and there was hope afterward that UNC might come back. Justin Jackson made a 3-pointer to cut Wisconsin’s lead to two, and a Brice Johnson free throw cut it one.
Wisconsin responded with another 3, though, this one from Josh Gasser. After Wisconsin led by five, guard Marcus Paige did what he so often has at UNC during the past two seasons. He began making clutch shots with his team in its most desperate need of points.
Paige’s 3-pointer with one minute, 42 seconds to play cut Wisconsin’s lead to 69-67, and with 55 seconds to play, he made another 3 from nearly the same spot – the left wing – that cut Wisconsin’s lead to 71-70.
The Tar Heels came no closer. On their next possession, trailing by three, sophomore forward Isaiah Hicks missed two free throws. Wisconsin took a five-point lead with 23 seconds left on Nigel Hayes’ two free throws, and the Badgers continued to seal the game at the free-throw line.
UNC, which led 33-31 at halftime, often took advantage of its transition chances – a must against Wisconsin’s slow-it-down style – and the Tar Heels fared decently enough, at least early on, against Kaminsky. He finished with 19 points but made five of his 11 shots from the field.
The Badgers, though, proved why they’re a No. 1 seed. They were at their best down the stretch, and forward Sam Dekker often kept them in it earlier, when Wisconsin struggled. Dekker finished with 23 points.
Paige finished with 12 for UNC, and Johnson and Justin Jackson finished with 15 points apiece for the Tar Heels.