North Carolina’s season ended with a splat Sunday, as Texas A&M blew out the Tar Heels, 86-65, in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Those A&M letters could have stood for “Ambushed” and “Manhandled,” because that’s what the underdog Aggies did to North Carolina before what was basically a home crowd for the Tar Heels in Charlotte’s Spectrum Center.
Said UNC coach Roy Williams of Texas A&M’s inside dominance: “They blocked 70,000 shots.”
It was actually only eight, but it felt like more on a day when UNC blocked zero shots of its own and kept getting stoned in the paint.
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Said Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy: “We rattled their confidence a little bit.”
A little bit? UNC had won 30 NCAA tournament games in a row in the state of North Carolina, not losing one since 1979. But the Tar Heels not only were beaten Sunday, they were absolutely embarrassed.
UNC, which won the national title in 2017 and made the national final in 2016, this time lost in the round of 32.
Texas A&M was longer, stronger, more athletic, more graceful, more motivated and better coached. Texas A&M (22-12) had lost four of its last seven games entering the NCAA tournament, but the Aggies crushed UNC inside and also caught the Tar Heels on a day when nobody in baby blue could shoot straight. If John Fox had been there, the former Carolina Panthers coach would have said the Tar Heels picked a bad day to have a bad day.
Queen City to Upset City
Charlotte turned into Upset City in this topsy-turvy NCAA weekend. UNC’s loss was almost mundane – a No. 7 seed beating a No. 2 seed – compared to the unprecedented drama Friday night. When No. 16 UMBC whipped No. 1 Virginia, 74-54, it not only electrified America but it also served notice that we might end up seeing exactly nothing we expected this weekend in Charlotte.
Sure enough, the Tar Heels played as poorly as they have all year with the possible exception of that December home loss to Wofford. UNC missed 17 of its first 18 shots from 3-point range. I have coached rec league teams full of 10-year-olds shooting two-handed from their chests, and they make more than one out of 18. (UNC would finish 6-of-31 for 19.4 percent from 3-point range).
It was painstakingly bad for the Tar Heels fans who crammed into every cranny of the Spectrum Center. UNC held a 20-13 lead midway through the first half, and then it all went south faster than you could say “Black Sunday.” Texas A&M scored the game’s next 15 points.
“Their big guys got going and it was just tough,” said UNC senior guard Joel Berry, who led his team with 21 points but made only 2-of-10 from 3-point range. “It was tough to stop them, and then we’d go shoot an outside shot and miss, and then they’d come back down and get the ball inside and shoot it right at the basket.”
A flaw unmasked
Texas A&M deserves all sorts of credit for its play. Future NBA first-round pick Robert Williams is raw offensively, but he soars so high above the rim that he grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked two shots. The Aggies’ other big man, 6-10 junior Tyler Davis, had 18 points, nine rebounds and three blocks himself. Texas A&M guard T.J. Starks got to the lane with impunity and scored a team-high 21.
UNC freshmen Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley were boys among men inside. And while Luke Maye’s numbers were OK (13 points, 11 rebounds), he is not the sort of player who is going to out-jump Williams.
The Tar Heels desperately needed to shoot well Sunday to compensate for what always was the No.1 candidate to be their fatal flaw – the lack of the bruising inside game that UNC can always play. But it didn’t happen, and the flaw was exposed to the world.
“We’ve beaten people up over the years and the tables were reversed today,” Williams said. “We’ve been able to mask the problem all year long by making enough jump shots and getting to the free-throw line.”
34-2 in NCAA tournament games in N.C.
This was a Tar Heels team that was hard to figure all season. It did some spectacular things, like beating a loaded Duke team two times out of three. And the Tar Heels did some unspectacular things, which is why they ended up losing 11 games. Even with Berry, Theo Pinson and Maye returning as key players from that national championship team, UNC lost a lot of firepower.
UNC is now 34-2 in NCAA tournament games in the state of North Carolina. The only previous loss came in 1979, when both Duke and UNC lost in Raleigh on the same day in what became known as “Black Sunday.”
This was another ignominious Sunday for the Tar Heels, 39 years later.
But that’s the NCAA tournament, right? Two No. 1 seeds lost in the first weekend in 2018 and two more No. 2 seeds. People forget that the 2017 Tar Heels that won the championship nearly bowed out in the second round, too. UNC trailed Arkansas 65-60 with less than four minutes to go last year in the round of 32 before scoring the game’s final 12 points.
There was nothing like that Sunday. The Tar Heels fell behind, stayed behind and limped 140 miles home to Chapel Hill.
“I didn’t picture it ending like this,” Williams said. “I pictured it ending with these guys having a huge smile on their face. But that’s not college basketball.”