UNC Leaves Pittsburgh Lugging Frustration Into the New Year

PITTSBURGH – Reading the North Carolina locker room did not require a masterful level of understanding after the 25th-ranked Tar Heels’ stumbling second half stuck them with a 76-74 loss at Pittsburgh.

From big man Armando Bacot’s frankness with the questions he fielded to forward Pete Nance’s practical appraisal and guard RJ Davis’ searching brand of perspective, the feelings behind the postgame player assessments were as unambiguous as the collective frustration UNC lugged out of Pitt’s Petersen Events Center and into the New Year.

UNC fumbled away a nine-point lead that looked as if it was trending favorably towards a double-digit spread. And what could have been a dominant Friday afternoon around the basket for Bacot instead became one that fizzled out, as the Panthers rallied to extend their unbeaten start in ACC league play, while ending the Tar Heels’ four-game winning streak.

Bacot finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds, his fifth straight effort of sturdy production since returning from a bruised right shoulder. But he took just three shots from the field and scored three points throughout the remainder of the game, almost the final 12 minutes, after his dunk put UNC ahead 55-46 with 11:55 left.

Did Pitt make adjustments to reduce Bacot’s opportunities down low, forcing UNC to look elsewhere? “I don’t think they took it away,” he said of the Panthers’ defense on his post-up game. What happened to reduce the touches Bacot had been getting? “I don’t know,” he said.

Bacot said he was angered and frustrated by the crumbling nature of UNC’s loss. “I thought we turned a corner,” he said in the next breath, referring to the wins the Tar Heels secured against Ohio State and Michigan prior to their eight-day holiday break from games.

Could that mean maybe the proverbial corner is wider than Bacot anticipated? He questioned UNC’s desire with his response. “I think we as a group, we just don’t fully understand what’s ahead of us, what can be accomplished,” he said. “You play at a school like North Carolina, you’ve got to go out there every day and just want to play and want to win. I don’t know. I just feel like, I guess we didn’t care.”

UNC either led or didn’t trail Pitt from the 18:59 mark of Friday’s first half until the 3:59 mark of the second half. The Panthers picked up their fourth victory in the last five meetings against the Tar Heels, who will surely drop out of the AP Top 25 after returning to the poll earlier this week. Nance said, though, he wouldn’t classify the loss as a step back from the progress UNC had engineered throughout the last three-plus weeks.

UNC big man Armando Bacot walks off the court at Pitt’s Petersen Events Center. (Photo: Jim Hawkins / Inside Carolina, 247Sports)

Nance’s outing also became underlined by a drought. He stroked in eight early points as the Tar Heels led 22-15 during the game’s opening 9:12, but then scored just two points the rest of the way. Later on, he missed a pair of free throws with 5:35 remaining, and spent the game’s last 4:48 on the bench as coach Hubert Davis turned to D’Marco Dunn and a three-guard lineup.

Nance said the lapses and mistakes wrenching UNC’s promising stretches are the types of inconsistencies all college basketball teams are dealing with in one form or another at this juncture.

“I feel like if any team says they have it perfectly figured out at this point of the season, I think they’re wrong,” Nance said. “You saw what we can do in games like Ohio State and Michigan, how good we can be, and we just need to figure out how to be more consistent and be able to do that every time we play.

“I think continuing to get the ball inside to Armando is something that needs to be something we need to hang our hat on going the rest of the way. I think that was what helped us hold the lead. We went away from that a little bit, and I think just continuing to do that all year long is going to really help us out a lot.”

Pitt guard Jamarius Burton, a two-time transfer by way of Wichita State and Texas Tech, poured in a career-best 31 points on the strength of 14-for-17 shooting from the field. UNC led 62-60 entering the game’s final four minutes when Burton pumped in seven straight points, surging the Panthers to a 67-64 lead. He worked over Dunn twice during crunch time for clutch buckets. The Tar Heels (9-5, 1-2 ACC) will get the chance for payback at home against Pitt (10-4, 3-0) on Feb. 1, when coach Jeff Capel’s Panthers visit the Smith Center.

In the locker room here Friday, RJ Davis used “we played phenomenal” to describe his satisfaction with UNC’s 89-84 outlasting of Ohio State in overtime at Madison Square Garden in New York and 80-76 out-toughing of Michigan at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC, the back-to-back defeats of Big Ten foes that propelled the Tar Heels back into ACC league play at Pitt.

“The last two games that we played, we played phenomenal,” RJ Davis said, “played team basketball, and that was the Carolina team that we knew from the beginning of the year.”

So why does that UNC team emerge at times and disappear at others — particularly with a lineup leaning on four returning starters from last season’s NCAA Tournament runner-up and a proven addition in graduate transfer Nance — and regularly struggle to put opponents away? A month ago, losses to Alabama in four overtimes and Iowa State at the Phil Knight Invitational tournament could have been valuable résumé victories if the Tar Heels had maintained their grip on leads coming down the stretch at the end of regulation.

“First of all, we know that we’re going to get everyone’s best shot,” RJ Davis said. “Everyone’s going to play their top brand of basketball every time we play them, so we have to be mentally prepared for that.

“But we are a veteran team, we have been here before. We always say we’re right there, but it’s like why be right there when we have the pieces needed to be the team that we know we have to be? It’s something that we’re going to have to reflect on, go back to the drawing board, and get better and move on for our next game.”

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