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December 4, 2011
Down but not out
Carolina is discovering the people in the uniforms earned the banners hanging from the Smith Center rafters, not jerseys on their backs.
"That first loss [to UNLV]," sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall said, "we didn't need the loss but we needed that wake-up call. It's as if we were just going to walk up on the court and be the best team."
So the fifth-ranked Tar Heels became far more aggressive in back-to-back games against top-10 teams this past week. Nonetheless, poor execution during their final possession on Saturday resulted in Carolina's second loss of the season, a 73-72 defeat to top-ranked Kentucky's at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.
UNC fell to 6-2, while the Wildcats improved to 8-0.
The Tar Heels' effort had been less than consistent before bottoming out in a loss to Nevada Las Vegas. That changed this past week. The Tar Heels defeated seventh-ranked Wisconsin on Wednesday in a game that required all the energy UNC could muster.
Nonetheless, after losing at Kentucky the Tar Heels can now see that effort alone is not enough.
There are many areas of the game left for this team to master if it is to achieve its lofty goals.
"We had a chance to win it at the end and couldn't get it done," Coach Roy Williams said of the loss at Kentucky. "I'm satisfied with the effort. I'm not satisfied with our play. We played very, very hard against Wisconsin. That is really a difficult team to play.
"I'm pleased with our effort [against UK]. I thought they wanted it badly. They're hurting because they wanted this game badly. We do have to play a heck of a lot better; it's just simple little things. We've got to be more consistent."
For starters, more patience on offense would be helpful. Just because Williams pushes the Tar Heels to score easy baskets by running the floor does not mean he wants his team to launch the first available shot if the opposition retreats in time to stop the break.
The Wildcats displayed far more patience.
"They were willing to run some clock," Williams said. "They don't throw up the first bad shot."
At times this season Carolina has shown it can pass the ball until it gets nearly unstoppable shots. Just one more pass often makes the difference between a difficult shot and a high-percentage attempt.
"We weren't getting the shots we wanted," sophomore forward Harrison Barnes said. "We've got to work on getting better shots."
The Tar Heels looked like a golfer who quickens his swing under pressure. The more hurried they became, the less efficient the Tar Heels became.
The final possession typified their lack of patience.
"This is a very good team, and this would have been a very big road win for us," Barnes said. "The fact that we couldn't execute down the stretch is kind of alarming."
The Tar Heels need not be alarmed. They simply need to open their minds and ears to what Williams is teaching. He will guide them to where they wish to go, if only they will follow.
Right now, adding poise under pressure would be the most advantageous improvement this team could make.
The three most talented teams in the country are Kentucky, UNC and Ohio State. Carolina is the one of that trio not utilizing its talent as well as it should.
"Are we getting more comfortable, yes," Marshall said. "We're still not close at all to being the team we want to be. It's all a learning process, things we have to get better at.
"One thing Coach said is that you can't fault our effort. We went out there and competed for 40 minutes. Maybe you couldn't say that in the UNLV loss. It's all about getting to be the team we want to be."
But this is why UNC plays marquee matchups in November and December: to discover deficiencies and make corrections before the NCAA Tournament arrives.
"Games like this get you ready for March," John Henson said. "That is really all that matters."