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UNC 91, NC State 95: Familiar problems doom the Heels

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Sigh.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina State at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Every loss hurts. Some hurt more than others. Some frustrate you, some anger you, some are fleeting frustrations. This one is going to sting for a while.

This year’s version of NC State is not the same as the one that lost by 51 points in the Dean Dome last season. If you needed a very evident reminder of that, look no further than when the Tar Heels came out of the gate swinging and delivered a blow square to the Wolfpack’s jaw. They picked themselves up off the mat in short order and proceeded to blow Carolina away from three-point range.

Perimeter defense has been a problem for UNC all season, but this may have been the most egregious example of their failings in that department. NC State shot the lights out from distance, hitting 15 three-pointers. Carolina, on the other hand, only managed to hit four shots from beyond the arc.

Couple Carolina’s poor three-point defending with their inability to convert from the free throw line, shooting 55% there, and you have an overtime loss to a team that everyone with any relation to the Heels hates losing to. The Heels had plenty of chances, but could never put State away. The lead changed 10 times over the course of the game.

It’s a weak, futile testament to how UNC played outside of the aforementioned things that they were even still in the game. If UNC defends the three-point line better, if UNC hits their free throws...eh, it doesn’t matter now. They had a chance right down to the end of overtime when UNC managed to pick off State under their own basket in the final seconds. Instead of a miracle, they seemed frantic and the panic resulted in, well, nothing good.

Carolina turned the ball over 14 times to State’s nine. The Wolfpack scored 22 points off those turnovers. NC State bested Carolina in second chance points, 22-18, a statistic that usually goes in UNC’s favor because of their rebounding ability.

The loss does not fall on the shoulders of Theo Pinson, who turned in a brilliant game. The senior scored 22 points and had 15 rebounds. You can argue that the tide turned at the end of the game when Pinson was called for his fourth foul and had to sit. Where have we heard that before? Luke Maye scored an incredible 31 points and pulled down 12 rebounds in the losing effort. He hit three of the team’s four three-point shots.

One thing that is clear is that the Tar Heels are a team searching for answers right now instead of a team that is hitting its stride. Instead of being able to look for the final pieces falling into place, the team is trying to figure out how to compete at their opponent’s level and working to navigate important pieces disappearing entirely for a game.

Having so few answers is one of the sources of frustration around the losses that have mounted this season. The road doesn’t get easier from here with a trip to Clemson looming on Tuesday.