It’s been 48 hours. I trust most of the emotions from Saturday’s shocking collapse have subsided. The Heels enter an “off” week holding a 1-4 record in the ACC as they prepare to travel to Pittsburgh next Saturday. Hopefully they’ll return the favor from last Wednesday’s loss, but that’s six long days away. Our sanity probably requires a small break from heartache and disappointment.
However, that doesn’t mean I’m not a glutton for punishment, so today I’ll ask that you join me in reliving those final two minutes and eight seconds of regulation. Those 128 seconds will now live on in UNC basketball infamy. Should you decide to keep reading, you’ll find a play-by-play break down of UNC’s offensive ineptitude in their final possessions. I apologize for the journey you’re about to embark upon. You’ve been warned.
Note: I decided to go with the offensive mistakes instead of the defensive miscues. Most of Clemson’s points were scored off turnovers, which felt more important to the situation than various defensive blunders. I’ve added a few defensive possessions for context.
Bacot post-up and foul
Holding a 66-58 lead, the Heels take the ball out on the far sideline. Brandon Robinson inbounds the ball to Leaky Black (this is important to remember). Leaky takes it around the perimeter while the Heels get into a box set. As Leaky dribbles to the near sideline (close to UNC’s bench), Robinson kind-of-sort-of-but-not-really sets a screen for Platek to clear out.
Then Robinson starts up the lane, but halts his momentum. This looked like he was either supposed to set a backscreen for Brooks or Brooks and Bacot were setting up an elevator screen. Either way, it doesn’t matter.
Bacot eventually dives to the block, but Black either could not or would not enter the ball. Robinson eventually takes a great screen from Brooks at the top of the key, and immediately fires it to Bacot. It results in a foul and two free throws. UNC led 68-58.
After a Clemson three-pointer cut the lead to 68-61, Bacot inbounds the ball. He tries to hit a guarded Brooks near the corner. Leaky Black is in the opposite corner and Robinson is in front of half-court with nobody within 7-10 feet of him. This was after a make, so Bacot could have run the baseline.
In summary, there were no screens set, Bacot did not run the baseline, Brooks was closely guarded, both UNC ballhandlers were more open than Brooks, and Clemson tipped the ball out. After the play, it appears Robinson is telling Leaky to go to the ball.
On the ensuing play. Brooks is now the inbounder. Bacot sets a screen for Leaky and Robinson sprints up the sideline. So far, so good. Then all hell breaks loose.
Brooks gets the ball back and encounters a trap. This picture (above) shows the situation. Both Andrew Platek and Bacot are behind Clemson’s entire defense. It’s hard to blame Brooks for not making a full-court pass, but Leaky Black was also open on the diagonal. Leaky could have also flashed to the middle to shorten a potential pass from Brooks Quicker recognition while Clemson’s back line was in full retreat mode and UNC is looking at a 3-on-2 situation.
Instead, Brooks swings back to Robinson, who ignores the diagonal pass to Platek. He decides to make the longer pass to Bacot. Unfortunately, Clemson’s defense is now set and John Newman III is waiting.
Slow recognition and poor decision-making were the culprits of this turnover.
Leaky didn’t pick up the ball until Newman was at the three-point line. Bacot was out of position after getting back from the other end of the court. Newman had free reign into the lane. Bacot was caught in no-man’s land. A drop off by Newman and lay-up by Aamir Simms cut the lead to 68-63.
This one was pretty cut and dry. Leaky takes the inbounds pass in the corner and gets trapped. He leans back on one foot, keeps the ball high, and floats the pass to absolutely nobody.
A quick dribble and wrap-around pass might have found Brooks on the reverse. Squaring up and leaning into the defense might have given him better angle to hit Bacot. An overeager defender may have committed a foul or forced a jump ball, both of which would have benefited UNC.
Instead, Black looked tentative, scared, and panicked. The result was an eventual trip to the free throw line for Simms. He made one of two attempts, and cut the lead to 68-64.
This time UNC breaks the press. Leaky catches it in a better location, Clemson doesn’t immediately trap, and Brooks sets the screen. Leaky swings back to Brooks, and Brooks eventually (finally!?) makes the diagonal pass to a streaking Robinson.
After Clemson maintains the pressure, Robinson finds Black at the foul line. Black doesn’t attack the paint and immediately swings to the ball to Platek. It’s hard to blame Leaky for not attacking the rim. Bacot wasn’t aggressively posting-up and the situation wasn’t amenable to a quick shot.
Platek slid up the court as a safety valve, taking away what might have been a 3-on-2 advantage. Seeing how he did not try and cut to the basket, I’m inclined to think that UNC was implementing a delay-styled game. It’s possible that Platek misread the situation. Regardless, even at the time, this sequence felt like a missed opportunity. Let’s continue.
Black eventually gets the ball back, and UNC kind-of-sort-of sets into their box formation. This time, though, with the shot clock winding down and the Heels in disarray, the result was different.
Black fails to turn the corner, there is no target on the block and Clemson is switching every screen. Robinson sprints to the top of the key, but Bacot doesn’t make any contact with Robinson’s defender. That leaves Brooks to set a screen, allowing Brooks’ man to switch onto Robinson and contest the shot.
The ball never touched the paint. Guards never looked to penetrate. There was minimal contact on screens. This was panic without a purpose. Clemson answered on the other end with a Simms three-pointer over Bacot to cut the lead to 68-67
UNC eventually got the ball up the court on the next possession before calling a timeout with 22.4 seconds remaining. Not even a timeout could halt this tragic comedy. Unlike the last SLOB (sideline out-of-bounds), Black was the inbounder instead of Robinson. This was likely to make Robinson an option for free throws if Clemson chose to foul immediately. Before the play, Roy Williams even pointed at Robinson to remind him to come to the ball.
Instead, Black threw a lollipop of a pass to the backcourt. Throwing it to the backcourt wasn’t inexcusable. It’s common. Throwing the ball like it has helium in it, however, is not advised. Alas, that’s what Black did, even though it looked like Robinson was open.
Seriously. That pass was five feet short of Brooks, and Brooks had 20 feet of real estate behind him. At this point of the season, it’s hard to not feel pity for Black’s mental and/or physical state. He is clearly struggling on multiple fronts.
Clemson’s Clyde Trapp was eventually fouled, but missed both free throws. UNC’s Robinson responded by making two free throws with 12.1 seconds left, giving UNC a 70-67 lead. Before Robinson’s final free throw, Roy Williams used UNC’s last timeout.
Clemson brought the ball up the court and initiated their final play. A stagger screen for a curl flowed right into double flare screens. Brooks went the wrong direction in the confusion, and Simms got off a clean look.
We can debate whether UNC should have fouled, but the clock read 6.2 seconds when Simms caught it and Brooks was five feet away. Conventional wisdom says that if you advocate for fouling in this situation, you do it under six or seven seconds. Pretty tight window there, despite the comments from Roy after the game.
Not fouling was not as egregious as not having everyone’s heels touching the arc. North Carolina could not have fouled even if they wanted to. Clemson’s only realistic option was a three-point attempt, but the Heels literally had all five defenders inside the three-point line when the shot went up. A great play design combined with horrific defense gave Clemson exactly what they wanted.
Robinson got the ball with exactly 3.5 seconds left. As with other possessions down this stretch, it’s hard to blame him for the decision he made. The senior had a career night, has rarely seen a shot he didn’t like, and was UNC’s only real offense from deep.
Yet, with 2.5 seconds left Platek is clearly behind the defense with an open path. Would there have been time to push ahead for a better shot? Maybe. Maybe not. It was, however, the second time in less than two minutes that Robinson had “ignored” an open Platek.
I get it. Some of this is nit-picky and easily defensible in real time. Some of it, however, is not.
Up 68-58 with 2:08 remaining, these Heels panicked, missed (or ignored) open teammates, turned simple plays into complex algorithms, and choked the game away. The seemingly lack of basketball I.Q. is concerning. The lack of mental toughness to handle the smallest bit of adversity is shocking. Acknowledging the team is missing four scholarship players and a potential top-5 NBA Draft pick, they have let three winnable games slip away because of execution errors, mental miscues, and a lack of focus.
Mathematically, the Heels can still finish strong and turn these past eight days into a memory. If Cole Anthony returns, I still believe this team is good enough to take advantage of a mediocre ACC.
Realistically, though, they haven’t given fans many reasons for optimism.