The homecoming game North Carolina coach Roy Williams scheduled for Marcus Paige did not go as either of them planned.
Not only did a broken finger prevent Paige from playing, the Tar Heels also floundered down the stretch in the Iowa native's absence.
Having built a 16-point lead at Northern Iowa three minutes into the second half, top-ranked North Carolina failed to deliver a knockout blow. The Panthers instead made the Tar Heels pay for lackadaisical perimeter defense, careless ball handling and poor shot selection, erasing that deficit with a blistering seven-minute surge and then emerging with a 71-67 upset victory.
Northern Iowa wasn't expected to match the success of last year's 31-win NCAA tournament team without graduated star Seth Tuttle, but a new go-to threat emerged for the Panthers late in Saturday's game. Senior point guard Wes Washpun scorched the Tar Heels off the dribble, scoring the majority of his 21 points via forays to the rim and also dishing out eight assists.
It was Washpun's penetration that sparked the 20-4 Northern Iowa second-half spurt that tied the game and the late push that won it for the Panthers.
Of the 14 baskets Northern Iowa made in the second half, Washpun scored six himself and assisted on five others. Sometimes North Carolina's help defense was too late rotating over to stop the speedy point guard at the rim. Other times the Tar Heels were too slow to close out on shooters when Washpun kicked to them spotted up behind the arc.
The disappointing loss underscores the risks Williams takes scheduling homecoming games for seniors who have contributed a lot to the North Carolina program. The Tar Heels never would have agreed to a road game at Northern Iowa under normal circumstances, but they did so Saturday as a reward for a senior guard who averaged 17.5 points per game as a sophomore and 14.1 points per game as a junior.
North Carolina might have overcome its defensive miscues were Paige on the floor to bolster the offense on Saturday, but the Tar Heels missed his poise, ball handling and ability to space the floor with his outside shooting.
Without Paige, there were too many rushed shots and too many turnovers as Northern Iowa made its run. The Panthers controlled tempo, did an admirable job keeping the Tar Heels off the offensive glass and dared North Carolina's perimeter players to knock down jump shots — a team-wide weakness last year even with Paige on the floor.
North Carolina's issues were never more evident than during its final meaningful possession when Joel Berry forced a contested potential game-tying 3-pointer with 15 seconds remaining. Isaiah Hicks managed to chase down an offensive rebound, but Berry threw a panicky diagonal pass that Northern Iowa's Jeremy Morgan intercepted, enabling the Panthers to ice the game at the foul line.
The only silver lining to the loss for North Carolina was that not many of its fans were watching. The game concluded at the same time that the Tar Heels football team was finishing off Virginia Tech in overtime.
North Carolina can also take solace in the fact that Paige's return will solve some of the issues that Northern Iowa exposed. It wasn't a confidence-inspiring performance by the Tar Heels, but an early road loss against a quality mid-major isn't too damaging either.
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