North Carolina (2-1) went blow-for-blow with Minnesota (4-0) early in a contest that looked more like a backyard brawl than it did a college basketball game. There were seven lead changes and five ties before halftime, but the Tar Heels’s fortunes turned south after building a 21-16 lead with 6:04 remaining.
Senior guard Blake Hoffarber (20 points, 6-of-15 shooting, 5-of-14 3-pointers) sparked Minnesota’s 10-1 run to close the half with a pair of 3-pointers to give his team a 27-24 advantage. The Gophers needed just three minutes to extend that lead to 35-27. North Carolina cut that deficit to one possession on seven different occasions, but each time Minnesota answered and eventually built a 69-59 lead with 49 seconds left in regulation.
Tyler Zeller led North Carolina with 16 points on 7-of-14 shooting and also grabbed five rebounds. John Henson tallied nine points, 12 rebounds and three blocks, while Reggie Bullock was the only other UNC player to crack double digits with 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting.
Ralph Sampson III (12 points, six rebounds) and Trevor Mbakwe (12 points, nine rebounds) provided Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith with strong post play to go along with Hoffarber’s perimeter shooting.
UNC connected on just 36.9 percent of its field goal attempts (24-of-65, 4-of-18 3-pointers) while holding the Gophers to 41.8 percent (23-of-55, 7-of-25 3-pointers). Minnesota outrebounded the Tar Heels, 46-39.
North Carolina will play Vanderbilt in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off’s consolation bracket at 5:30pm (Eastern) on Sunday.
INSIDE THE GAME
Ghosts of the Past
It appeared on Thursday night as though North Carolina was in the process of clearing out the debris left over from the ’09-’10 campaign, thanks to heady point guard play (15 assists vs. 3 turnovers) and solid outside shooting (12-of-17 3-pointers).
Friday served as a reminder that things rarely change overnight, but UNC head coach Roy Williams would rather the past stay where it belongs.
“I’ve tried to erase last year from my mind,” Williams told reporters in his postgame press conference. “It really doesn’t make any difference; it doesn’t have a lot to do with this year’s team. So many simple things... They were more aggressive than we were.”
North Carolina turned the ball over on its first two possessions en route to 16 for the game, suffered defensive lapses throughout and failed to box out on critical possessions. Most telling of all was the quantity of floor burns, or lack thereof. One play late in the game resulted with three Gophers fighting for the ball on the ground against one Tar Heel, and as you might expect, Minnesota ended up with possession.
When reporters entered the Tar Heel locker room following the loss, most of the players were sitting quietly in their chairs packing their bags. Larry Drew and John Henson fired off answers to inquiries about effort and letdowns as if they had answered those questions numerous times before.
“At the end of the game, Coach said it was a test to see how tough we’re going to be,” Drew said. “If we have any kind of heart and have any kind of desire, we’re going to bounce back from this. If not, then it’s not going to be pretty, but it’s all up to us.”
The Learning Process
Midway through the second half, a West Virginia assistant coach sitting on press row scouting the Mountaineers’ potential Sunday opponents turned to the person on his left and asked, “Is this kid really supposed to be an All-American?”
He was referring, of course, to highly-touted freshman Harrison Barnes. The AP Preseason All-American missed all 12 of his field goal attempts, but knocked down six of his eight field goal attempts in posting six points, seven rebounds and two assists against Minnesota.
Barnes didn’t offer much explanation to reporters other than the obvious during his postgame interview: “The shots just didn’t fall.”
Williams credited the Gophers’ defensive work for Barnes’s struggles, but also took time to restate his thoughts on the ridiculous preseason expectations placed at the Ames, Iowa native’s feet.
“It’s tough on a freshman when everybody’s saying he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread to live up to that,” Williams said. “He got 19 in the first half [against Hofstra] and he got zero in the second half and he’s on daggum SportsCenter about what a great job he did. I mean, my gosh, but it’s what it is. I understand that and he understands that as well, but people need to be realistic.”
It’s worth noting that when the Tar Heels were seemingly looking around at each other during the late stages of the game to see who would step up and carry the team to victory, it was Barnes that acted by attacking the glass to get to the free throw line.
“I try to do that all of the time, but at that point in time, we needed to get points and my jump shot wasn’t falling tonight, so that was the best way to get points for the team,” Barnes said.
Nothing For Free
Missed opportunities at the charity stripe continue to plague the Tar Heels this season. On Friday, North Carolina bricked six of its final 12 free throw attempts while trying desperately to cut into Minnesota’s lead. For the game, the Tar Heels connected on 15 of its 25 free throw attempts.
North Carolina is now shooting 57.5 percent (46-of-80) from the free throw line this season. Ironically, UNC’s opponents have struggled just as much on the freebies, knocking down 57.6 percent (38-of-66) of their attempts.