Fate did its best to ease the UNC program and its fan base into the world of suffocating runs and road collapses back on Nov. 19. In the Tar Heels’ first contest away from the Dean E. Smith Center, they withstood a 22-9 Ohio State run in the closing minutes to escape with a 77-73 victory at Madison Square Garden.
Consider it a tip of the hat, a fair warning that significant troubles awaited the defending national champions outside the familiar borders of Chapel Hill. But less than 24 hours later, the harsh reality began with Syracuse’s 25-3 spurt that saddled North Carolina with its first loss of the season.
In all, the Tar Heels have lost eight of their last nine games in buildings not named after their living legend.
Kentucky jumped into the conversation with a 28-2 run in Lexington on Dec. 5, followed by Texas’ 23-7 spurt two weeks later in Arlington. Mid-major College of Charleston outscored UNC 12-1 in the final 4:02 to force overtime. That Cougars’ charge may have been smaller in size, but it was larger in scope, sending flares into the Carolina blue sky that things were about to take a southern detour.
The ACC competition has patiently waited in line for their opportunities at revenge on the Tar Heels, beginning with Clemson’s 26-6 run on Jan 13 and ending with Georgia Tech’s 24-5 spurt on Tuesday night. Even in UNC’s lone true road victory of the season – a 77-63 win over league doormat N.C. State – the Heels allowed an 18-4 Wolfpack run that provided a five-point second-half lead for their rivals to the East.
After posting a 42-4 record in road and neutral site games in ’07-’08 and ’08-’09, North Carolina has doubled that loss column total this season, prompting head coach Roy Williams to offer a long-winded explanation during his press conference on Friday.
“The bottom line is the ball hasn’t gone in the basket as much for us,” the seventh-year UNC head coach said. “When the ball goes in the basket, you’ve heard me say, everything looks a lot better. The toughness issue, the being able to focus, the being able to be disciplined enough to block out the crowd and just focus on our bench and what’s going on on the court. We haven’t maintained that intensity level or the concentration level that we’ve been able to in the past.”
But that explanation doesn’t seem to do the actual runs justice. The Tar Heels just seem to fall apart after taking a bone-crunching uppercut to the jaw. Defensive assignments are forgotten, bad shots are taken and turnovers multiply.
During Georgia Tech’s 24-5 run on Tuesday, North Carolina missed 15 of 17 field goal attempts and coughed up eight turnovers.
Point guard Larry Drew was asked in the locker room following that 17-point loss if the team simply got flustered when opponents mounted a charge.
“Yeah, you could say that,” Drew said. “If we’re not able to score a basket right after the other team scores a basket, then we kind of get even more flustered and it leads to one bad thing after another, instead of us keeping our composure and buckling down and doing what we have to do.”
Confidence plays a significant role in being able to handle adversity on the road, but this Tar Heel squad has played 26 games this season, which is plenty of time to learn your role and move past the jitters.
“There’s no question that you’re not very confident if you’re 3-8 in the league,” Williams said. “You can’t be very confident. But I also think that it’s a bunch of nonsense. You still have to play…
“Kids are always looking for reasons, looking for this or that. The bottom line is you’ve got to play dadgum basketball. And you’ve got to play it as hard as you can play and as intelligent as you can play. You can’t play scared. You can’t play worried about what some people are going to say.”
One factor that seems to be missing this season is leadership. There has rarely been a time during one of these fatal runs that a Tar Heel has gathered his teammates and demanded a stop or orchestrated a score.
Drew offered his own explanation on that topic, saying, “Honestly, most of that stuff happens so quick that it’s like in the blink of an eye we’re down by 15 or 20 points. By the time you want to slow things down and pull everybody together, it’s almost too late.”
While he makes a solid point, it’s also important to note that Georgia Tech’s first-half run lasted 10 minutes and three seconds with three timeouts thrown in for good measure. If someone had wanted to step up and calm the situation, there was plenty of time available to do so.
North Carolina is running out of opportunities to plug the holes responsible for these runs. With road trips to Wake Forest and Duke to close out the regular-season schedule, the Tar Heels frantically need to find the solution in Boston on Saturday.