Having lost standout guards Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson to graduation this past spring, Belmont needed a new star to emerge if it was going to have any chance of returning to the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year.
Thankfully for the Bruins, somebody has stepped forward.
J.J. Mann continued his transformation from role player to go-to scoring threat on Sunday by burying the game-winning 3-pointer with 13.1 seconds left to help Belmont topple 12th-ranked North Carolina 83-80 in Chapel Hill. Mann finished with a game-high 28 points, 11 of which came during a game-ending 13-2 Bruins run during the game's final two minutes.
That Belmont was able to spring the upset is a testament to the skill of its coaching staff and the grit of its players because the Bruins were at a huge deficit in size and athleticism. North Carolina has a roster littered with former McDonald All-Americans and top 50 recruits. Belmont has a team full of overlooked but skilled players still adjusting to bigger roles this season.
The absence of wings P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald made North Carolina more vulnerable than its ranking might suggest, but the Tar Heels still had ample chance to put Belmont away. Even though North Carolina sank only 22 of 48 free throws on the day, the Tar Heels still managed to erase a double-digit first-half deficit and build a late eight-point lead before everything crumbled down the stretch.
Several times North Carolina appeared more interested in milking clock than extending its lead. Sophomore point guard Marcus Paige also committed turnovers on three of the Tar Heels' last four possessions. And on Mann's go-ahead 3-pointer, J.P. Tokoto inexplicably went under the ball screen instead of fighting over the top, enabling the Belmont wing to have a clean look at a shot from the top of the key.
Even so, North Carolina still trailed by only one entering its final possession, but the Tar Heels didn't get much of a look. Tokoto dribbled into traffic, picked up his dribble and attempted a fade-away jumper from the elbow that grazed the front rim and fell short, enabling Belmont to throw the ball up court and clinch the victory.
Belmont's late charge reduced the Dean Dome to stunned silence. The loss was only North Carolina's second non-conference defeat at home under Roy Williams, though perhaps Tar Heels fans shouldn't have been so surprised considering the abundance of warning signs leading up to Sunday's game.
The Bruins (3-1) had just defeated a pretty good Indiana State team that toppled Notre Dame earlier Sunday and is expected to contend in the Valley this year. The Tar Heels had just slogged their way to a laborious win over an unheralded Holy Cross team that lost 18 games the previous year.
It's foolish to draw sweeping conclusions about Belmont and North Carolina from just one game, but this much seems clear.
The Bruins look like contenders once again in the Ohio Valley Conference despite the personnel losses they sustained this spring. And the Tar Heels probably aren't likely to contend in the ACC unless they get Hairston and McDonald back, they improve their free throw shooting and they correct their mental miscues on defense.