So he decided he and his mates had to elevate their already high level of intensity even more if they were going to defeat visiting Georgia Tech.
They did and the result was an 83-77 victory before a frenzied and relieved crowd of 17,492 at the Dean E. Smith Center.
“I didn’t want to lose,” said the hardworking Capel, who needed some extra fluids after the game. “I probably took the losing harder than anyone else. I don’t read what is written but I want the finger pointed at me. I know my shot wasn’t falling but I didn’t get down on myself. I just wasn’t going to let the team lose … whatever I had to do.”
Capel scored 18 points, grabbed nine rebounds, handed out five assists and had four steals while having a role in at least four others as the Tar Heels avoided their first 0-4 start ever and first five-game home losing streak in school history. UNC improved to 1-3 overall and 1-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Sophomore guard Brian Morrison finally displayed his extraordinary potential, pouring in 21 points and giving a struggling offense badly needed life. As a team, the Heels were 11-23 from beyond the arc, a clear improvement over the first three games in which they shot a combined 23.3% from trifectaville.
“We can say we are good shooters all we want, but until the ball goes through the hoop in a game, you’ve got to feel it,” UNC head coach Matt Doherty said. “I think (Brian Morrison) is going to be walking with his head held high right now.”
Carolina, known for its patented runs, hadn’t been on many in its three defeats. However, trailing 75-69 with 4:54 left, a stretch reminiscent of days of yesteryear commenced, engineered - as it always is - by defense.
Capel’s third 3-pointer of the season began the scoring end of the 14-2 run that closed the game. But extended pressure by the perimeter players - freshmen Melvin Scott and Jackie Manuel - as well as Capel forced Tech into taking hurried shots and turnovers that UNC used to forge ahead and ultimately seal the deal.
“That shows how dangerous this team can be,” said a happy Lang. “We know we have a lot of potential but some times it takes good things to happen to begin to recognize that. I think now we know we can do good things on the floor.”
Scott nailed a 3-pointer after a beautiful swing rotation from Capel to Will Johnson to Scott, who somehow managed to bank in the 3 from the left baseline, tying the score at 75.
Manuel knocked down two free throws just 1:17 after missing a pair giving UNC its latest lead of the season. However, a driving layup by Halston Lane knotted the game at 77 with 1:13 left.
Lang, Scott and Manuel each went 1-2 from the free throw line to give the Heels an 80-77 lead with 16.4 seconds left, but then came the defining moment.
The Jackets went to its senior leader Tony Akins, who dribbled into a trap on the left wing near the top of the Tech bench. Akins picked up his dribble and Capel, who was there along with Scott, flicked the ball loose, picked it up and tossed a lead pass to Scott, who had darted up the floor and converted a layup while drawing a foul on Lane. The made free throw gave Carolina an 83-77 lead and took a monster-sized monkey off of the entire program’s shoulders.
“First of all, I would like to thank the seniors, especially Jason and Kris, for holding this group together during a trying time,” UNC’s second-year head coach said. “Without those guys and their leadership, we wouldn’t have won this basketball game and have some hope. They could have easily pointed fingers and caved in. They not only stuck together, but they led us through this period. I’m very lucky to be coaching these kids.”
Also joining in the defensive mix was freshman Jawad Williams. In fact, during much of the run UNC had Williams, Scott and Manuel on the floor with Capel and Lang.
Akins led Tech (3-4, 0-1) with 22 points followed by Lane and freshman B.J. Elder with 17 each.
Carolina shot 50.9% from the floor and assisted on 25 of the team’s 27 made field goals.
Lang finished with 13 points and a career-high 13 rebounds. He also had three of UNC’s 13 steals. Scott tallied 10 points on the night and Williams chipped in with nine while dishing out an impressive five assists.
“I thought Jawad gave us a big lift,” Doherty said. “I thought he made some great plays. They (freshmen) grew up again.”
After falling behind 6-2, the Yellow Jackets went on a 16-3 run capped by Akins’ 3-pointer. The run was aided mainly by UNC turnovers of which three were by backup point guard Adam Boone in a span of 100 seconds.
However, the Tar Heels got back in the game because of tenacious defense and the desire of a team desperately seeking its first victory.
Manuel, who later in the half picked up his third foul, hit the floor twice. Lang’s denial defense and dive for the loose ball he knocked away gave the Heels another possession. Morrison, just seconds after allowing a Tech slam when he didn’t dive for a ball, hit the floor to secure another UNC possession.
But the half’s most exciting moment - and certainly one that will have UNC fans talking for some time - came with 1:16 left before intermission.
Williams, after picking up a deflected ball near the top of Tech’s key, bolted up court and delivered a bounce pass to a cutting Morrison who exploded for a two-hand slam that sent the fans into hysteria. He also drew a foul on Yellow Jacket Robert Brooks and finalized the three-point play by converting the free throw, and in the process put the Heels ahead 35-33.
“We were down and going on a run and it was a key point in the game,” said Morrison, who received calming advice from his older brother just before the game. “I just cut and went up. I figured (the celebration) we needed a boost.”
Asked how good it felt to sky for such a crowd-pleasing jam, he answered as one might expect.
“It felt good. It didn’t feel bad!”
And neither did the victory for the Tar Heels, who will be atop the ACC until they play their next conference game, one month from now on Jan. 5 against Wake Forest.
“That’s real big and I’d like to look at something-and-0 for a long time” Lang said about being 1-0. “It’s a big lift and will help give the younger players more confidence.”
And what about that brotherly advice Morrison received?
“My brother (Joseph) wrote me an e-mail before the game telling me ‘When you go out there play for an audience of one.’ He knows I have been struggling some… So I wrote it on my shoe before the game.”
Coupling brotherly advice with hot shooting and Capelesque effort, the Heels may have found part of the magic this team had been seeking.
For at least another week and perhaps longer, they can live with that.
Andrew Jones is in his sixth year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He is also in his fourth year as a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a nightly radio show on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and once published The College Game and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at: AJWAAV@aol.com.