North Carolina played its 2,993rd college basketball game on Sunday night, and in 2,992 of those games, as best the school records can tell, the Tar Heels made shots with more efficiency than they did on Sunday during their 63-45 defeat against Michigan State in a championship game of the PK80 tournament.
Indeed, this was a performance for the ages – just not the kind coach Roy Williams or his players ever hoped they’d witness, or be a part of producing. Williams is known for his hyperbole, and for speaking in absolutes, especially after defeats. Sometimes, he can make a routine defeat, if there is such a thing, sound like the worst game he has ever experienced.
This time, though, Williams was factually correct when he started his press conference with a simple observation:
“Well,” he said. “It was about as bad an exhibition as I’ve ever seen.”
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If anything, it was worse. The Tar Heels here on Sunday night missed, on average, three of every four shots they attempted. They made 15 of their 61 attempts from the field, and that 24.6 percent performance was finally enough to excuse two games, more than 60 years old, from the top spot in a dubious place in the school record book.
Before Sunday, UNC had never made fewer than 25.3 percent of its attempts from the field. The Tar Heels made that percentage against Alabama in 1955 and against Wake Forest in 1956. And in every game since, for more than 60 years, UNC had never shot so poorly. And then came its game against Michigan State in the Moda Center in the championship game of the PK80’s “Victory Bracket.”
The Spartans’ defense, which allowed the Tar Heels little room to drive, pass or do much of anything else, applied pressure in a way that UNC had yet to experience this season. From the beginning, Michigan State, ranked fourth nationally, made clear that UNC was no longer facing the likes of Northern Iowa or Bucknell or Portland State or Stanford.
“They punched us right in the mouth,” Joel Berry, the UNC senior guard, said. “And we just let them punch us and we didn’t fight back at all. … They just took us out of what we wanted to do, and they were aggressive.”
That was one way to put it. The players’ reactions, and that of Williams, put words to the story of UNC’s misery on Sunday. And the numbers told a grim tale of their own. The Tar Heels made two consecutive attempts from the field only twice and never made more than two consecutive attempts. During one stretch in the first half, they missed 10 consecutive shots, and 13 of 14.
In many ways, though, UNC’s futility could not be condensed into 10- or 12- or 15-shot increments. It was best understood as one whole entity: the Tar Heels made only 15 of their first, and last, 68 attempts from the field.
UNC, as always, attempted to work its possessions to the interior. Rarely did a pass or a drive wind up there, though, and, when it did, Michigan State rarely allowed anything easy. UNC missed seven layups. During one particularly hapless sequence in the first half, Brandon Huffman, the UNC freshman forward, went up for a shot that Nick Ward, Michigan State’s 6-foot-8 and 245-pound forward, blocked.
The ball came back to Huffman, and he tried again. And again, Ward, more imposing and menacing than any of UNC’s players in the post, met the attempt with force, this time swatting it out of bounds. Huffman soon left the game and only returned toward the end of both halves.
“They were more aggressive, and we were not moving,” Williams said. “We were screaming, ‘Move, move, move, move, move,’ and just – we were not moving. They were aggressive getting over screens. We set a triple screen for Joel on the baseline.
“And (Michigan State guard Cassius) Winston did not want to be screened. So he got through.”
With about 5 1/2 minutes remaining before halftime, and the Tar Heels trailing by 14, Williams went deep into his bench. He called on Aaron Rohlman to enter the game. Rohlman is a walk-on who had rarely, if ever, played outside of the final minutes of a game long decided. And yet he hustles and is among UNC’s most physically imposing players.
In that moment, Williams said, he simply wanted to play “somebody that would move.”
“Somebody that would try to box out,” he said. “Somebody that would try to set a screen. Again, the freshmen acted like freshmen, but so did our seniors. So did the head coach.”
Through UNC’s first five games, the Tar Heels at times played with a poise and efficiency that belied the questions that had long surrounded them – those about how they’d replace so many important players who departed after last season, especially those on the interior. After a humbling performance, Williams twice said that the freshmen “played liked freshmen.”
He said everyone, in fact, played like freshmen.
“And the coach coached like he’d never seen the game of basketball before in his life,” he said.
As a head coach, though, Williams has seen his share of games: 1,038 of them, over 30 years. During his 15 years at UNC, he’d never seen anything like what he saw on Sunday – a 24.8 percent shooting performance, one filled with misses from both near and far. UNC’s 1-for-18 finish from behind the 3-point line also set a school record for futility, surpassing a record that had stood for nearly 21 years.
Luke Maye, the junior forward who entered Sunday averaging a double-double, described the defeat on Sunday as “a wake-up call.” Theo Pinson, the senior forward, said it was “a learning experience, I guess.”
That’s the hope, anyway: that what happened against Michigan State leads UNC to better things. Given a night like this, literally one of the worst offensive performances in the Tar Heels’ long, storied history, it might not have been unreasonable to surmise that Williams and his players would simply attempt to forget about it and move on.
Williams assured that he will not forget, though. He said he plans to study the debacle.
“I will look at it, because I’ll look at the job I did,” he said. “I mean, how can you play that poorly? … I will look at myself a million times more than I’ll look at the kids.”