CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — When an unranked, mid-major team upsets a top-25 team, there’s generally a recipe for that: timely three-pointers, good execution and withstanding the ranked team’s inevitable runs.
Rick Byrd’s Belmont team (3-1) did all of those things against No. 12 North Carolina (2-1). It led by seven points at the break and as much as 11 in the second half at the 15:11 mark, but the Tar Heels fought back and went on a 22-5 run to take an eight-point lead with 3:46 to go. They still led 78-70 with 2:37 to go.
But Belmont didn’t flinch, scoring 11 points in the final 2:22.
And as the underdog, of course you need a little bit of luck.
Belmont’s best shooter, J.J. Mann, hadn’t been playing like it most of this season. He was 1-of-16 from three entering the game and had made just 2-of-11 attempts on Sunday in the first 39 minutes of action.
So he had made 3-of-27 attempts in his first 119 minutes of basketball this season.
But in the final 1:02, he drained three straight three’s to bring Belmont back from a six-point deficit – including the game-winner with 14 seconds to go, leaving the Smith Center crowd in stunned silence as J.P. Tokoto’s jumper on a messy-looking play fell short.
North Carolina head coach Roy Williams blamed himself after the loss, and for the final play.
“I did a poor job coaching. It’s on me,” Williams said. “I’ve always had the philosophy that if the other team scores to take the lead, if it’s more than seven seconds, we don’t call a timeout. We attack right then because we’ve got the ball in the open court.
“We didn’t execute at that point, and that’s my fault. I was proud of the way they came back against a very good team, but we dug ourselves in a hole by mistakes and missed free throws. Then we made a really, really nice comeback but I didn’t do the job done the stretch.”
Obviously, the game came down to more than the last play, though. And it showed UNC is going to have a lot of issues for however long it is without wings P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald. Some are fixable, others less so.
1. Belmont’s three-point shooting absolutely killed the Tar Heels
In the first half, Belmont’s aerial assault on the Tar Heels was impressive as the Bruins took 21 of their 27 first-half shots from three (and made seven). Early on, the Tar Heels had plenty of breakdowns trying to defend the three-point line.
“In the first half we were supposed to be squeezing and have the guard go under (the screen),” UNC forward Brice Johnson said. “Some of us forgot and just kept hedging out like regular because that what we’ve been preaching the whole time.
After Belmont made two of its first three three-point attempts in the second half to take an 11-point lead, Williams decided to have his team start switching on screens. It worked, as Belmont made 2-of-8 three’s in about a ten-minute stretch after that and UNC went up by eight.
So Byrd adjusted and had his team use dribble handoffs. And Belmont made 4-of-4 three’s in the final 2:59 to leave with the win.
“Towards the end, we had been switching everything,” sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. “That’s what got us back in the game. Then (Belmont) started going to these little dribble handoffs, which are a little harder to switch because you don’t know if your guy’s going to fake the handoff or not.”
The game-winner was on a play like that.
“He just kind of pitched it back to him, which is hard to switch and hard to cover. We just didn’t get out there in time, Paige said.
“Even if they were crosses, not even screens, we’re still supposed to be switching. It’s just a mental lapse, I guess,” Tokoto said. “That’s what kind of happened with the last shot of the game – we were supposed to switch it, and I kind of saw him going left, keep going. I knew I had to step up and at least contest the shot. Credit to (Mann). He made a great shot.”
Perhaps the oddest part about it is that while Belmont has shown it is willing to take a lot of three-pointers, that hadn’t really been its M.O. for the first few games this season. The Bruins were averaging 18 three-point attempts a game coming into the UNC game (and five made three’s).
Against UNC, they equaled their season total of made three’s through their first three games combined – 15 – and attempted 37 from beyond the arc.
“We knew they were capable of shooting three’s, there’s no question. Still, you’ve got to go by the first three games. They’d make five. But they made five today in the first 30 seconds, it seemed like to me, and they really got confidence there,” Williams said.
Johnson, for one, was surprised. You don’t often see teams, even smaller teams, attempt nearly 70% of their shots from three. “Yeah, I was really surprised at how many three’s they shot. They say they can shoot three’s, but dang,” Johnson said. “I’m thinking they’re going to drive to the basket – like the scouting report says, they can drive left or right. Nobody knew they would all shoot three’s like that.”
2. Speaking of shooting … UNC’s free-throw shooting was ghastly
The Tar Heels were 22-of-48 from the free-throw line, which is 45.8%. But that was an improvement from the first half, when the Tar Heels made 9-of-28 free throws. Nine. Of. 28.
UNC was able to draw fouls due to its size advantage and penetration, but it couldn’t capitalize.
“We’ve got to make those. We missed 26 of them in the whole entire game,” Johnson said. “We make just a couple of them, we would’ve won the game. That’s just concentration. You’ve got ten seconds to shoot it – you’ve just got to concentrate and make that.”
Tokoto was the worst offender, making just 2-of-12 free-throw attempts in the first half. He drew a number of fouls on aggressive drives to the basket, but he couldn’t finish. And he missed eight in a row at one point, too.
He airballed his first free-throw attempt, and Tokoto – who has overhauled his shooting form in the off-season with assistant coach Hubert Davis – then started thinking about it.
It’s almost like golf – when you shank a drive or two, you’re thinking on your next shot about all the things you need to do differently. Then you’re in your own head, and it’s all downhill from there.
“Honestly, after I airballed the first free throw and the second one was short, it started getting in my head that I had to put more behind it. And that’s just not how I go through my free throws,” Tokoto said.
At one point, the crowd tried to urge him on, cheering for him as he stepped up to the line. It didn’t work. Nothing did.
“It was definitely a snowball effect, just seeing them clunk out or missing all the way left, that should never happen,” Tokoto said.
He would finish 4-of-16 from the line. And he felt a sense of responsibility for the loss.
“When you look at the box score yourself and you look at your stats, you’re looking at, okay, what could I have done differently? That’s pretty much what I was looking at,” Tokoto said, still incredulous and shaking his head nearly a half-hour after the game ended.
The oddest part about for Williams is that his team makes the free throws in practice, for the most part. At halftime, he reminded his team that during that week in practice, they’d shot over 70% from the line.
Either way, they didn’t make the free throws, and that was one of the biggest differences. Even the 13-of-20 effort in the second half didn’t help, though it was certainly an improvement. That can’t happen in the future, or UNC is going to lose a lot more games going forward.
3. The Tar Heels were coming off of a sloppy win over Holy Cross on Friday, and some of the offensive woes they were expected to have with Hairston and McDonald out indefinitely crept back in from time
UNC shot 48.3% for the game and 48% or better in each half, but it still had a few significant field goal droughts, like one that went from the 12:25 mark to the 7:40 mark in the first half (a 4:45 drought). And the Tar Heels saw droughts like that plenty against Holy Cross on Friday night, too.
Except for James Michael McAdoo (who had 27 points) and Marcus Paige (who had 17), there aren’t a lot of go-to scorers. But when UNC moved the ball well and kept working for the best possible shots, the Tar Heels had more success. It’s basic, but the alternative is UNC resorting to one-on-one basketball or panicking and forcing a bad shot or turning it over.
A lot of that happened late in the game especially – Belmont started trapping and Paige had three of his five turnovers in the closing minutes.
But the droughts throughout games this season have been an issue, too.
“Ball movement, just moving it around the court, giving the defense a chance to make a mistake. That’s the biggest thing Coach talks about,” Johnson said. “We need to move the ball more so the defense can make a mistake or we can get a lay-up or a great shot, a great wide-open shot.”
Without McDonald or Hairston, lineups are shuffled. Paige is at the point guard spot instead of at the two, and even McAdoo has to play a lot of three instead of his more natural four-spot. But the more important loss, obviously, is losing the scoring that Hairston in particular – who was UNC’s leading scorer a year ago – brings.
So yes, this team will take its lumps without those two in the lineup. But that wasn’t a good enough reason to lose, according to Paige, and they’re not using it as an excuse.
“I didn’t expect to lose, if that’s what you’re asking. We had no intentions of losing this game, and we thought despite whatever lineup problems we had, we should’ve won,” Paige said. “But I guess that’s what happens.”