It's easy to focus on the game's end. UNC was up by five with 53 seconds to play; they would lose by three in agonizing fashion. UNC's tradition of handling the waning seconds of a close game horribly once again reared its head, with Marcus Paige turning the ball over three times in the game's final two minutes, while Belmont's leading scorer drained his last three shots with hardly a hand in his face by basically running the same play. But you can't blame this on a last-second collapse, as this game shouldn't have been this close to begin with.
The game can be boiled down to the same three series, over and over again. Belmont would commit one of their sixteen turnovers; UNC would fail to capitalize. Belmont would launch one of their thirty-seven three-point attempts; UNC would be unable to beat the Bruins back down the court. And most frustrating of all, Belmont would foul a Carolina player; said player would miss the free throw. And then miss the second free throw. And can't really tell you what happened after that, as I was busy trying to not throw something through the TV.
The Tar Heels took 48 free throws. If they shoot an completely reasonable 65%,they win by six. Stretch that to 75%, and it's a double-digit rout. Instead, the Heels shot less than 46%. J.P. Tokoto was an abysmal 4-16, as it quickly became apparent to Belmont that fouling the sophomore turned a sure two points into what was basically an unrecorded turnover. And the Bruins had fouls to give; they played twelve players, and although many spent large stretches of the second half in foul trouble (and the defense suffered for it) no one fouled out, and all of their scoring weapons were available for the game's waning minutes.
Not that they needed more than J.J. Mann. Belmont's offense was designed to pull the UNC defense out to perimeter, as they often had all five players behind the arc. Invariably, they would rely on a perimeter screen to free up Mann or fellow senior Drew Windler to drain a three. Belmont's shooting kept the Heels off-balance in the first half, and the Bruins went into the break with a seven point lead.
Carolina did a decent job of clawing their way into the lead in a second half, primarily on the play of James Michael McAdoo and Marcus Paige. McAdoo is once again coming under fire this year for "not [being] a go-to guy." It's a pretty ludicrous criticism — McAdoo scored fifteen second half points and generally changed the character of the Belmont defense. With McAdoo as a serious threat, it freed up Brice Johnson to score on the undersized Bruins. Johnson would finish with 14 points (10 in the second half), nine rebounds, and two of the team's 11 steals. While this performance alone probably won't win him a starting role, it will definitely increase calls amongst the fans to see more of him.
And then there was the breakout player of the season to date, Marcus Paige. The sophomore finished with 17 points, five assists, and an unfortunate five turnovers. He mostly eschewed the three in the face of Belmont's defense, penetrating for layups instead. He also made some spectacular plays, culminating in a particularly heads-up play where leaping for an errant pass, he managed to keep one foot inbounds and ricochet the ball off a Belmont defender despite falling into his own bench.
That play came after UNC had already had a six-point lead whittled down to two, however. This game put in stark relief how different an experienced team handles late-game situations than the unexperienced Heels do. Up six with the ball, Paige would turn the ball over twice before the Bruins ran a perimeter screen for Mann, who was only 2-11 from three up until that point. He easily drained it to halve the deficit, and two Marcus Paige free throws later, he did basically the same thing to cut the lead to two.
Reduced to a one-score lead and having already almost thrown the ball into the stands, the Heels burned off the shot clock only to have Paige drive and lose the ball off of his shins and into a jump ball between Blake Jenkins, playing hurt, and Luke Davis. (Davis's presence at this point in the game tells you all you need to know about Nate Britt's play.) With nineteen seconds left on the clock, Belmont chose to not call a timeout, leaving UNC wrong-footed. They went to Mann for the third straight time in the same manner, and with 14 seconds remaining the Heels found themselves down one.
Anyone who has followed Carolina ball in recent Novembers knew what to expect. Not taking a timeout, the team drove, Tokoto got caught in traffic, put up a poor shot and lost the rebound to a Belmont break that just padded the lead as the last seconds faded away.
The Tar Heels fall to 2-1, and if the Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament was run like a standard tournament instead of the modern preseason variety, they would find themselves in a loser's bracket. As it stands, they will travel to a Connecticut casino to play Richmond all the same, and if things go well there Louisville. With two of its players still awaiting NCAA rulings, this is a young team, so these types of setbacks are to be expected; it doesn't make it any less painful to lose in such a fashion. If UNC doesn't get a consistent third option to join McAdoo and Paige, be it from someone on the court on on the bench in a suit, this could be a painful non-conference season.
And improving this team will be difficult if they have to spend the entire practice learning how to make a free throw.