Julian Gamble contests a shot by James Michael-McAdoo (Getty Images)They had the home crowd behind them. They had ample motivation coming off a loss. They were facing a Miami team missing its top big man.
There were a lot of reasons to believe North Carolina would bounce back from Sunday's loss at Virginia and get a critical ACC win on Thursday night, which is why it's alarming that the Tar Heels failed to do so.
Miami dropped North Carolina to 0-2 in the ACC with a 68-59 win, the Hurricanes' first against the Tar Heels since 2006 and their third in the last 21 meetings between the two schools. Back-to-back threes from Durand Scott and Trey McKinney-Jones broke open what had been a back-and-forth game and gave the Hurricanes a virtually insurmountable nine-point lead with just over three minutes to go.
Under normal circumstances, an 0-2 start to ACC play wouldn't inspire panic, especially considering North Carolina actually won the 2009 national championship the only time this century it began ACC play with two losses. This year feels different, however, since the Tar Heels (10-5) appear to lack their usual talent or inexperience and must navigate the toughest possible ACC schedule.
Thanks to the quirks of an imbalanced league schedule, the only teams North Carolina will not face twice this season are Clemson, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Boston College, maybe the ACC's four worst teams. Up next for the Tar Heels in their search for their first league win is a visit to Florida State and a home game against Maryland, with road games against NC State and Duke looming in the coming weeks.
Such a daunting schedule makes it critical for North Carolina to close out winnable home games, but on Thursday it was Miami who played the better second half.
Within two at halftime despite a lackluster first-half performance on both ends, Miami regrouped with a fairly basic offensive strategy. Either the Hurricanes pounded it down low to center Julian Gamble and had him exploit his weight advantage over the younger, thinner Tar Heel big men, or they had Kenny Kadji set a high ball screen for Shane Larkin and forced North Carolina to choose between stopping the drive or the pick and pop.
Gamble, who entered the game averaging 5.9 points and 4.2 rebounds, had 14 and 6 against the Tar Heels on 7 of 10 shooting. Larkin had 11 points and got into the lane with ease in the second half, while Kadji had one of the best games of his career, contributing 18 points, nine rebounds and four blocks.
If North Carolina had its usual array of offensive weapons, it would have had little trouble answering Miami's mini-runs. Alas, the Hurricanes successfully blanketed Reggie Bullock and James Michael-McAdoo in the second half, and the Tar Heels had nowhere else to turn.
Bullock went 1 of 9 from the field with two turnovers in the second half and finished with 11 points on 4 of 16 shooting. McAdoo scored 10 first-half points but missed his first six shots of the second half before a layup in the final two minutes. North Carolina shot 11 of 33 (33.3 percent) as a team in the second half.
In between North Carolina's loss at Virginia and the Miami game, Bullock called a player's only meeting to try to get the team back on track. But while it was good to see someone take the initiative, it's also hard not to think in retrospect that at least some of the Tar Heels' issues will be tough to fix.
They don't have strong interior defense or a formidable back-to-the-basket scorer. They suffer too many defensive miscommunications and breakdowns. They aren't even getting consistent play from McAdoo, the one guy who was supposed to be a proven commodity entering the season.
Perhaps, McAdoo will live up to his potential, the young big men will develop, the outside shooters will be freed for more open shots and North Carolina will improve during the second-half of the season. For right now, however, the Tar Heels look like less like a contender and more like a team that will have to scratch and claw just to make the field of 68.