Boston College (13-2) used a dominant first-half performance to take a 46-40 lead into halftime, before building a 15-point lead with 6:23 remaining. The Tar Heels, behind Tyler Hansbrough’s 21 points and nine rebounds, mounted a furious rally, closing the deficit to 82-78 with 47 seconds to play.
But Tyrese Rice (25 points, eight assists) knocked down three of his four free throws in the final 25 seconds to secure the Eagles’ victory.
"Needless to say, it hurts," North Carolina coach Roy Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference. "We just never could get over the hump, didn't get them to turn it over very much. Then we had some guys - including myself - who didn't have as good of a day that we hoped we'd have."
At first glance, the stats don’t appear to tell the whole story of the first half. North Carolina (13-1) shot 50 percent from the floor, while holding Boston College to 44.2 percent. The discrepancy in field goal attempts, however, explain the aggressiveness in which the Eagles attacked the nation’s unanimous top-ranked program.
Boston College attempted 11 more field goals (43 to 32) than the Tar Heels, thanks in large part to 13 offensive rebounds and a 23-19 rebounding edge in the opening stanza. North Carolina’s defense, which has allowed its last six opponents to post a combined 44.1 shooting percentage (168-of-381) after holding its first eight opponents to 37.4 percent, provided the Eagles with plenty of scoring opportunities early.
Quite possibly the most telling stat of the first half was Boston College’s two turnovers – a season-low for Tar Heel opponents.
“We didn't play our game,” senior wing Danny Green said. “We didn't focus on the things we needed to focus on, mainly boxing them out and limiting them to one shot--one bad shot. They were getting open shots. Our traps weren't good; they were splitting the traps, getting it to the open man, finding open guys, knocking down three's and getting second and third shots. That is something that we emphasize, and we didn't focus on doing that.”
The Eagles forced their will on the Tar Heels, dictating a slower, more methodical, pace of play that added to UNC’s frustration. Rakim Sanders (22 points, seven steals, six rebounds) and Reggie Jackson (17 points) joined Rice in double figures for Boston College.
“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we’re going to try to play our style of basketball,” said Boston College head coach Al Skinner, whose squad shot 45.7 percent for the game. “And tonight, there were some opportunities for us that their defense created, and we were able to take advantage of it. For the most part, on the offensive end, I think we got a lot of good shots.”
North Carolina slowly responded in the second half, forcing nine turnovers while allowing just three offensive rebounds and winning the rebounding battle, 31-17, but by the time the defensive momentum had shifted, an anti-UNC lid had securely been fastened to the Smith Center rims.
The Tar Heels trailed 78-63 with 6:23 remaining, but after Wayne Ellington (16 points, five rebounds) drained a 3-pointer to cut into the lead, Williams elected to go with a small lineup to put more pressure on the perimeter while also providing more offensive firepower from long range, substituting wing Will Graves for power forward Deon Thompson.
The strategy worked well enough, but North Carolina was unable to take advantage of its opportunities, missing seven of its final 12 free throw attempts – including the front end of a one-and-one – and its last eight 3-pointers to end any thoughts of a comeback.
“You look down and you see that you shoot 29 percent in the second half – it’s hard to beat anybody like that,” Williams said.
North Carolina outrebounded Boston College for the entire game, 50-40, while also winning the offensive rebound battle, 28-16. The Tar Heels also shot 38.4 percent from the floor (28-of-73, 7-of-22 on 3-pointers), and 55.6 percent from the free throw line (15-of-27).
The lackadaisical approach of the first half, combined with the inability to score when needed down the stretch, led one reporter to ask Williams if he could chalk up the loss to it simply being one of those days.
“I think you can take that, but that would be a cop out for me,” Williams replied. “I’ve got to do a better job. The kids feel like they’ve got to do a better job. It didn’t feel like a good day. I’m not one that believes that it’s just in the cards. I believe that you can control how you play and you can control your emotions and you can control how mentally you are into the game and how physical you’re going to be.”
The Tar Heels play the College of Charleston in its final non-conference game of the season on Wednesday, before heading to Winston-Salem on Sunday to face undefeated and sixth-ranked
Wake Forest in a pivotal ACC clash.