In the moments after North Carolina’s 63-45 defeat against Michigan State on Sunday night, Theo Pinson, the Tar Heels’ senior forward, found comfort in the familiar.
“Been here before,” he said, before repeating it. “Been here before, where we got smacked.”
Indeed, the Tar Heels have been here before, but not all too often during the past two seasons. They also haven’t quite experienced what they did on Sunday, given that the loss against Michigan State in the PK80, at least statistically, was among the worst in school history. UNC made just 24.8 percent of its attempts from the field, and never before had it shot so poorly in a single game.
Yet in the broad sense, the Tar Heels have been here somewhat recently, reeling after a double-digit defeat. It didn’t happen often last season, but three times UNC lost games by double-figure margins: by 12 points at Georgia Tech, by 15 at Miami, by 10 against Duke in the ACC tournament.
After each of those games, UNC responded well. The Tar Heels won seven consecutive games after their New Year’s Eve loss at Georgia Tech last year. After the 77-62 defeat at Miami, UNC finished the regular season with victories in seven of its final nine games, with the only defeats against Duke, at home, and against Virginia on the road.
And then came the Tar Heels’ final defeat of last season, a 93-83 loss against Duke in the ACC tournament. UNC then won six consecutive games on its way to the national championship. It didn’t lose again until Sunday.
Pinson, who led UNC with 16 points against Michigan State, called the defeat “a learning experience, I guess.” And that was the popular refrain throughout the Tar Heels’ locker room – that this could, in the words of Luke Maye, the junior forward, serve as a “wake-up call.”
“Being an experienced player here and going through big-time games, we kind of needed a game like this to see where we were at, and see how we do when we’re facing adversity,” Joel Berry, the senior point guard, said on Sunday. “And I’m not panicking. I mean, we did the same thing last year – had a game that kind of humbled us and we went back and we worked hard.
“And the history will speak for itself.”
The history Berry was referencing was the history he and his teammates made early last April, when they won UNC’s sixth NCAA championship in school history. It was a victory that came after that 10-point loss against Duke in the ACC tournament, and after another one-sided defeat at Miami in the middle of the Tar Heels’ ACC schedule.
This loss, against Michigan State on Sunday night, came much earlier in this UNC team’s journey. It came after five relatively easy victories. The Tar Heels won all of their first five games by double figures, but they learned quickly on Sunday that Michigan State, ranked fourth nationally, was an entirely different challenge: bigger, faster, stronger, more tenacious.
At times, the Tar Heels seemed out-matched in every conceivable facet – physical and otherwise.
“They were physically, mentally, emotionally more into the game than my club was,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.
Before Sunday, the Tar Heels had won 11 consecutive games. That streak included a national championship victory, and celebrations of that championship in April and October. Finally, that streak ended.
“It humbled us,” Berry said. “... We needed a game like this to show the freshmen, and just the younger guys, that these are the type of games that we’re going to be playing if we want to get to where we want to be, and that’s back to the national championship game.”