Tears of defeat for UNC after Birmingham upset

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — It would have been an emotional moment for Roy Williams regardless of the outcome, and regardless of what happened between North Carolina and Alabama-Birmingham on Sunday night. Williams was coaching against Jerod Haase, the Blazers coach who played for Williams at Kansas, and then spent 13 years working under him.

And so Williams, in his 11th season as the Tar Heels coach, spoke with tears in his eyes after his team’s 63-59 loss against UAB. The Tar Heels offered a performance that would have made Williams upset no matter what, but maybe it was more difficult for Williams to take because this defeat came against someone so close.

“It was hard for him, and it was hard for me,” Williams said of the moment when he and Haase shook hand and spoke when the game ended. “(You’ve) got to feel some pride in what he’s doing. You’ve got to feel some sadness for what we’re doing, and what we did today.

“We tried hard in the second half. We just didn’t come up with the loose balls off the board and didn’t come up with the plays.”

And that was it: Williams’ primary way to explain his team’s second confounding defeat in the past three Sundays. The Tar Heels on Sunday failed to adequately rebound against UAB (6-2), which Williams said had 17 more possessions than the Tar Heels.

And then, even when No. 16 North Carolina (4-2) had opportunities, it couldn’t capitalize on them – either through its own failures, like missed layups or ill-fated jump shots, or because of the Blazers’ defense, which clearly frustrated the Tar Heels.

“Our execution tonight was kind of poor,” said UNC sophomore forward J.P. Tokoto, who led the Tar Heels with 16 points.

Tokoto’s assessment might have been an understatement. The Tar Heels during the first half appeared as out of sync offensively as they have been this season.

In the second half, the Blazers shot a woeful 21.9 percent from the field and went more than seven minutes with making a shot from the field. Still, though UNC couldn’t break through.

“They weren’t really doing anything different than what we’ve seen,” UNC sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. “We’ve seen zone. We’re going to see more zone, just because of the way we score.

“Teams are going to zone us. But we worked for that, we prepared for it. We just couldn’t get anything to go, even though we were getting some stops.”

“They paid attention to me, obviously,” Paige said. “But I just tried to crank it up another notch when we started making a run (and) tried to get back into the game. … (I) decided that if I get in the paint, it might make some opportunities, because we weren’t getting a lot of easy shots in the first half.”

And even when UNC had easy shots, sometimes it didn’t matter. Junior forward James Michael McAdoo faltered from the perimeter and on the interior, where he missed three layups. McAdoo missed all but three of his 13 attempts from the field. The Tar Heels scored 28 points in the paint, and few came easily.

During the past three Sundays, UNC has experienced the abyss and the pinnacle. There was the defeat at home two weeks ago against Belmont, which gave the Tar Heels their second nonconference home loss under Williams. And then there was the jubilation that followed the victory against Louisville last week in Connecticut.

And now this. Williams, uncommonly emotional afterward, seemed most disappointed with his team’s effort, which he found lacking. He didn’t appreciate the way his team defended UAB guard Chad Frazier, who scored 25 points – 12 from the free-throw line. The Blazers, Williams said, seemed to secure every loose ball, every up-for-grabs rebound.

Effort wasn’t an issue against Louisville. Williams struggled to explain why it had been against UAB.

(They’re) “17-, 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids, I guess,” Williams said. “I always put three things up on the board (before games), and backboards was one of them.”

“Backboards” is one of Williams’ synonyms for rebounding. Sophomore forward Brice Johnson led UNC with seven rebounds but played only 16 minutes. McAdoo had four rebounds in 34 minutes, and he lamented a performance that, statistically, was among his worst since he became a full-time starter last season.

Perhaps the past three Sundays are indicative of UNC’s reality without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, the team’s two most experienced guards who missed their sixth consecutive game amid NCAA eligibility concerns.

A week earlier, Williams had “bounced around,” he said, with his players following the victory against Louisville. What transpired at Bartow Arena against UAB, though, offered the shorthanded Tar Heels a reminder that the best of times might come with its share of the worst, too.

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