Some holes are simply too big.
UNC got off to an atrocious start in the first half that largely carried through most of the game save a few spurts eventually falling behind 61-41 with 7:22 left in the game. From there UNC used extensive full court pressure and four Marcus Paige three pointers to get as close as three but never with possession of the ball. A missed Nate Britt layup with UNC down 77-73 with 25 seconds left ended up being the final nail as the Heels are eliminated in the ACC Quarterfinals by Pitt 80-75.
Much like several other games UNC has played away from the Dean Dome namely Florida State and Notre Dame, the Heels got off to a slow start. When the offense did generate shots, said shots wouldn't fall. But mainly the issue was a lot of haphazard offensive execution. The Heels made several bad passes and had at least three shots at the rim that didn't hit anything. Paige tried to be more aggressive early but went 0-4 before hitting three straight shots to end the half with seven points. Brice Johnson scored eight to lead the Heels who rallied from down as much as 18 to trail 36-26 at the break.
Despite drawing close enough to permit a potential strong second half start to get back into the game, UNC repeated the offensive ineptitude of the first period giving back the late half gains. Meanwhile, there was no answer for Pitt's Talib Zanna. With 13 minutes left in the game, Zanna had 17 rebounds and finished the game with 21 to go along with 19 points. UNC threw any number of big men at Zanna but time and time again, the Panther center got to the rim for offensive rebounds. UNC could not get stops and failed to score on far too many possession resulting in a 20 point deficit. For the game Pitt outrebounded UNC 43-35 with the Tar Heels closing that margin significantly down the stretch off missed Pitt free throws.
By all rights the game should have been over except the Tar Heels put together another classic "Carolina rally." UNC went into full press mode for the remaining seven minutes of the game and Pitt obliged with multiple turnovers and missed free throws to open the door. Paige tried his best to seize the opportunity hitting four threes and scoring 14 points in the final seven minutes before fouling out of the game. At that point UNC had gotten as close as four but without Paige and Leslie McDonald who fouled out earlier, Roy Williams was forced to rely on Wade Moody as the best three point shooting option. It ended up being too much to ask and Pitt survived to face Virginia on Saturday.
Paige scored 27 points on 9-20 shooting and despite taking a knee to his quadricep which caused him to leave the game for an extended period in the second half. James Michael McAdoo scored 15 on 4-15 shooting, 7-9 at the free throw line to go along with seven rebounds. Brice Johnson scored 16 points off the bench. Kennedy Meeks started but again ineffective as was the case for most of the UNC interior players against Zanna. The Heels kept Lamar Patterson in check to some extent holding him to 12 points on 4-11 shooting. James Robinson picked up the slack with 19 points.
UNC falls to 23-9 and now looks to the NCAA Tournament where the latest projections probably put the Heels in the 5-6 seed range. UNC's play has not been great in the past five contests and the games against higher quality competition have been very difficult. It is possible this team peaked with the wins over Pitt, FSU, Duke and Wake Forest. What is happening in the recent stretch is the team being on the backside of that with the Heels needing to re-discover its footing. While the offense needs help, UNC's defensive play, which made the 12-game winning streak, has been a bit of a trouble spot lately. Not to mention conference tournament games are never great barometers of a team's performance but taken with the four previous game, some concern is warranted.
All UNC can do now is focus on the next tournament and regardless of how things have gone lately, this season is still in much better shape than anyone thought it was going to be in early January.