In many ways, UNC did everything it needed to do against a very good Wisconsin team. The Tar Heels kept the turnovers in check, got great contributions from Justin Jackson and Joel Berry with Brice Johnson producing on the interior. However Marcus Paige was too quiet for too long. Issues with defensive rebounding and a rough two minute stretch on the offensive end ultimately doomed the Tar Heels season.
By and large the Tar Heels executed the game plan well. They were solid enough on defense to get Wisconsin off balanced early and UNC produced on the offensive end. Justin Jackson hit a pair of first half threes, Brice Johnson was effective in the post as the Tar Heels took a 19-15 lead. Then came the first of the Badger runs, 10-1 over four plus minutes to seize a 25-20 lead. The Tar Heels punched right back with back-to-back baskets from Johnson to keep pace then pushing ahead to take a two point halftime lead.
UNC shot 50% in the first half and held the Badgers to 36.7% shooting. Badger star Frank Kaminsky was just 2-7 with Bronson Koenig missing all six of his attempts and Nigel Hayes going 1-6. Sam Dekker kept Wisconsin in the game with 15 points including a tip in at the buzzer to cut a four point UNC lead to two. On the other side Marcus Paige was 1-5 and for the most part very well defended.
After halftime both teams got off to a fast start with Wisconsin going to Kaminsky early and often. Foul trouble again became an issue for UNC with Kennedy Meeks picking up his third just a minute into the half and Johnson's third coming 37 seconds later. The fouls forced UNC into a smaller lineup but one that proved effective for a stretch. Jackson and Joel Berry teamed up on back-to-back possessions to push UNC to a 49-44 lead. The Tar Heels would make it a seven point lead 11 minutes remaining. A chance to make the lead nine was lost when Tokoto bobbled then had the ball stripped on a run out following a missed three from Sam Dekker.
Then came the next Wisconsin run, a 6-0 burst to cut the lead to one. The Tar Heels traded baskets and eventually extended the lead back to four at 60-56 with 6:42 left. As has been the case all season, there was a certain foreboding as the game moved down the stretch. Too many times a game of this nature for UNC came down to a handful of bad Tar Heel possessions on both ends. That was the case again with UNC squandering three straight straight possessions after a Kaminsky three cut the UNC lead to one. Wisconsin scored off those defensive stops for a 9-0 run and a 65-60 lead.
The Tar Heels didn't fold however. Out of a Roy Williams timeout, Jackson hit his 3rd three of the game on a set play to cut the lead to two. After a stop Johnson hit one of two free throws to make it a 65-64 game with 4:21 left. From there UNC couldn't make the plays. Meeks missed a jumper to take the lead back and on the other end the failure to grab an defensive rebound led to an open Josh Gasser three to put Wisconsin ahead by four.
At this point, with UNC's season at the risk of ending, Marcus Paige showed up hitting back-to-back threes to get UNC within one at 71-70 with 54 seconds left. Ideally if UNC could get a stop, a shot to win the game on the last possession would be on the table. Isaiah Hicks hedged on a screen and caught Bronson Koenig with his hip putting the 84% free throw shooter at the line. Koenig hit both and after Hicks missed both free throws on the other end, Hayes went to the line for Wisconsin to push the lead back out to two possessions. Time and math were against the Tar Heels and UNC eventually fell by seven to the Badgers.
Thus ends one of the weirder seasons in the Roy Williams era. After seeing this team over the past eight games, with a healthy Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson playing up to his potential, it's difficult not to think about what might have been. Had this team gelled into the present form in January how does that change the season? Is UNC a #2 seed instead of a #4? UNC lost 12 games this season and only one of them came against a non-NCAA Tournament team. In most cases the losses were against very good teams like Duke, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Virginia and Notre Dame.
The players on this team did a lot of growing up this season. There were clear signs of development and also indications not everyone has quite reached their ceiling. If everyone returns, UNC will be a highly experienced team with players like Jackson, Berry and Meeks ready to take a big leap forward. The Tar Heels took some lumps this season but at it wound down they showed they could win tough games as they did versus Louisville and Virginia in the ACC Tournament.
Ultimately this season feels a lot like 1992 right down to the #4 seed and the loss in the Sweet Sixteen to a #1 seed from the Big Ten. If the attrition is at a minimum, UNC will be positioned much like that 1993 team was where the sky could very well be the limit.