Well, that’s seven losses on the trot. For a team and fanbase that have suffered so many ignominious defeats over the last few months, I’d say “punch drunk” is probably too weak a term to apply to the prevailing mood. But then again “run-over-by-a-stampeding-herd-of-bison drunk,” while more accurate, doesn’t really roll off the tongue the same way. So here we are: punch drunk. But if you squint your eyes really, really hard, you might make out the glimmer of a silver lining from UNC’s loss to Louisville yesterday.
The fact that this didn’t hurt is...hurtful
This was not a moral victory. It wasn’t a good game. It wasn’t a good performance. But there’s something to be said for your team losing in exactly the fashion that you expected them to when they’ve been finding new and improved ways to gut you all season long. That didn’t happen Saturday: No choke job, no disastrous late-game turnover, no blown free throws (we went 7-8!!!).
With the exception of the slugfest in Tallahassee three weeks ago, I can say that this was the most fun I’ve had watching Carolina in the month of February. That’s a truly ominous statement but consider the alternatives: Wake was an embarrassing disaster; BC, Notre Dame, and Virginia were all gut punches, and Duke was...yeah. So, the fact that our emotional innards aren’t leaking in front of us has to be considered an improvement, surely?
In case you’re wondering, no, that wasn’t meant to be the silver lining.
Andrew Platek handled his demotion well
There were few things to like about Saturday’s game (getting real tired of saying THAT) but one thing that was encouraging was the play of Platek in reserve. With UNC’s endlessly shifting lineup (this was the NINTH new starting five of the season), Platek has been one of the players shuffled around the most this year. Ever since the Duke game, his play has suffered, whether as a starter or reserve. Against Notre Dame, he was relegated to the end of the bench, tallying just four minutes of game play, his lowest total of the season.
On Saturday, he responded well, going 3-5 from the field, hitting two of his three attempts from behind the arc and converting an old-fashioned three-point play as his other bucket. He also played with good energy, getting after the glass, tapping out boards he couldn’t corral, and showing renewed vigor on defense (not that he was particularly successful, that’s not just within his abilities).
After what must’ve been a lousy experience for him, it was good to see him play with confidence instead of hesitation or worse self-pity. The ability to take a tough scenario on the nose and come back from it with heart has been been present in this team throughout the season. Which brings me to:
You can still be proud of this team’s effort
Maybe I’m being soft on these guys. Maybe my eyes have searched so hard for something to like that they’re now inventing things. But I really do think this team is still competing. And I think they competed yesterday.
Let’s not kid ourselves: The minute the news broke that UNC would be without Garrison Brooks and Justin Pierce, we knew exactly how this was going to go. But UNC didn’t come to the KFC Yum! Center (still hate that stupid name) hanging their heads or looking sorry for themselves, they gave it their best. It wasn’t enough, not nearly enough, but they gave it anyway.
You could see it in plays where Christian Keeling wrestled for a jump ball after the whistle, or where Platek tried out-jumping larger opponents for boards to try and steal an extra possession, or Cole Anthony (who no one would blame for putting away the headband and getting ready for the draft at this point) still soldiering on with his teammates. You could see it in the second half when the Heels, dead and buried with a 21-point deficit and 5:36 left, threw together a 9-2 run that was jumpstarted by their defense. They didn’t quit. They couldn’t win, but they didn’t stop competing.
You learn more from failure than you do success. And it takes more character to fight hard in no-win situation than it does to dig deep in a winnable game. There’s no reward to be gained in the former. This team isn’t going to the NCAA Tournament. It may only have one pro. It doesn’t have many talented players, or many high-basketball IQ players. But it also doesn’t have quitters.