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UNC 63, Georgia Tech 75: Everything went wrong in the Tar Heels’ ACC opener

UNC looked distracted and played terribly in a loss to the Yellow Jackets.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Georgia Tech Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not sure what just happened, but it sure wasn’t basketball.

The North Carolina Tar Heels looked totally out of sync on New Year’s Eve, and lost to the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in Atlanta, 63-75. Neither the front court nor the back court was able to get anything going against a team expected to be one of the ACC’s worst.

And make no mistake, Georgia Tech is not a very good team. They missed numerous open three-pointers and did not take much advantage of 20 (!) UNC turnovers. To their credit, they played disciplined, active defense, causing many of those turnovers, but this was primarily a self-inflicted loss.

The game was tightly contested for the first 36 minutes, with neither team able to open up a significant lead despite numerous chances on both sides. Georgia Tech found some extra energy, however, and put the Heels away with the help of sharp passing on their end and UNC’s inability to execute.

The story of this game was turnovers. Not only did UNC give the ball away 20 times, a shocking 15 of those were Georgia Tech steals, live-ball turnovers that gave Georgia Tech many easy points. Joel Berry, still clearly feeling the effects of the flu that was reported on Wednesday, turned the ball over six times with only one assist. Justin Jackson looked out of sorts as well, adding three turnovers with three assists. Jackson did score 16 points, leading the Heels, but it came on 6-17 shooting (0-5 3PT) and at least four of those points came when the game had all but been decided.

The game looked ugly from the get-go, with the Yellow Jackets picking Carolina’s pocket two out of the first three possessions. Their zone clearly confused the Heels, including Berry, who took five three-point shots in the first four minutes. The Carolina bigs, usually a staple of the offense, were almost completely left out of the offense today, with the ball almost never going inside from the perimeter. On defense, the Heels had no answer for Tech’s dribble-drives and back-cuts, with perimeter defenders being beaten to the basket seemingly every time. Tech’s freshman guard Josh Okogie took particular advantage of the Carolina defense, scoring on his first five field goal attempts and finishing with a game-high 26 points.

However, thanks to a scoring burst from Luke Maye and Nate Britt, the Heels went into halftime with a slight lead, 32-29. There was hope that they would be able to address the turnover issues, as they had 13 in the first half, but this hope was quickly dashed as the second half began with two more Carolina turnovers. UNC was totally unable to run their usual offense, as seemingly every time the ball went into the paint, either through dribble penetration, passing, or offensive rebounds, the ball would be knocked away. The Carolina starting bigs, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, combined for only 6-13 shooting for 16 points, adding 18 rebounds (14 from Meeks) and four turnovers (all Hicks). Freshman Tony Bradley was unable to contribute significantly, either, going scoreless for the first time in his UNC career.

Britt continued to be UNC’s only consistent weapon, knocking down three triples on his way to 13 points, and contributing five steals as well, keeping his team within a possession or two throughout the half until it came time for somebody to step up. Britt, for all his gifts, does not have the ability to take over a game. Berry, uncharacteristically, seemed passive at crunch time, possibly as a result of his illness. Jackson tried to bring his team back into the game, but shots did not fall, and the Tech lead slowly extended as time expired.

UNC will need to regroup before their trip to Clemson on January 3rd.