CHAPEL HILL — Tears were shed at Smith Center on Tuesday. They just weren’t the kind usually associated with Senior Night at North Carolina.
Miami’s Ja’Quan Newton spoiled the sendoff for Tar Heel stars Joel Berry and Theo Pinson by hitting a buzzer-beating heave from just inside the halfcourt line to give the Hurricanes a stunning 91-88 victory.
The winning shot came just 4.1 seconds after Berry tied the game with a dramatic 3-pointer of his own, in a closing sequence eerily similar to UNC’s loss to Villanova in the 2016 national championship game.
It was only the third Senior Night loss in coach Roy Williams’ 15 seasons with the Tar Heels and the first to any team other than arch-rival Duke.
“I’m pretty stunned,” said Berry, who nearly willed his team back from a 16-point second half deficit by scoring 19 of his career high-tying 31 points in the final 6:48, but was the man guarding Newton on his heartbreaking 35-footer.
“I backed up because I didn’t want to get a foul,” Berry said. “I mean, that’s the shot we wanted him to take. It just so happened to go in. There’s really nothing you can do about it. He stepped up and hit a big-time shot.”
While there wasn’t much Berry and his teammates could do on the final play, other than congratulate the man who made it, there were plenty of other things they could have done differently to prevent their six-game winning streak from coming to an end.
The Tar Heels (22-8, 11-6 ACC) were especially deficient on the defensive end, where they allowed the Hurricanes to shoot 54.8 percent from the floor and make 11 3-pointers.
Although UNC also shot well, making 54.4 percent of its attempts, it hurt itself with some poor free-throw shooting and a mental lapse so egregious coming out of halftime that coach Roy Williams felt compelled to call a timeout to try and get his team’s collective head back into the game — something he rarely, if ever, does.
Those three straight turnovers, all of which led to Miami baskets, helped turn an eight-point halftime deficit into a 50-36 hole from which the Tar Heels spent the rest of the night digging themselves out.
“It was just miscommunication here and there,” Pinson said. “It was little stuff we can correct that came back to haunt us, I guess.”
As is its Senior Day custom, UNC started the game with upper class walk-ons Aaron Rohlman and Kane Ma on the floor, alongside Berry, Pinson and junior Luke Maye. And as often happens, the makeshift lineup provided an early burst of energy.
The Tar Heels led 4-0 by the time Williams subbed in regular starters Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams and led 18-10 after eight minutes. But then, as Pinson described it, he and his teammates began getting too caught up in the emotion of the evening.
When they did, the shots stopped falling, turnovers began mounting and the defense completely fell apart, allowing Miami to score with the ease of a pregame layup line.
“I just wanted to go out there and give it everything I had, make plays and leave my mark,” said Pinson, who finished with 12 points and a career-best 11 assists. “I think people were jacked up. It was not pressure. People were just excited to get out there and just play. We were pressing a little too much.”
It wasn’t until the urgency of a deficit that ballooned to as much as 16 points in the second kicked in that the Tar Heels finally began to execute more consistently.
Even then, their comeback bid was hampered by their own mistakes, especially at the free-throw line. Berry, a 90 percent shooter from the line, missed three in the game. Maye and Johnson both missed shots with a chance to bring UNC back into a tie.
As a team, the Tar Heels went 13 for 20 from the line while Miami made 12 of its 13 free-throw attempts, including four straight down the stretch by Newton — a 60-percent shooter.
Despite that disparity, UNC still had a chance to write a happy ending to its Senior Night story when Berry pulled up and hit his fifth 3-pointer of the second half to even the score at 88. But instead of going to overtime, history repeated itself.
Just as Villanova’s Kris Jenkins did two seasons ago in Houston, Newton rushed the ball quickly up court, let fly and spoiled the celebration.
“The kids kept competing,” Roy Williams said. “I really thought we were going to win the game. I really thought we were going to. But you have to congratulate Ja’Quan.”
Newton was just 4 of 24 from 3-point range all season before hitting his long-range game-winner.
If there was a silver lining to the Tar Heels’ disappointment, it’s that unlike Villanova, they still have more games to play and championships to keep pursuing.
“I know during tournament time it’s a little different,” Berry said. “You lose and you go home. Right now we’ve got to be blessed that we able to get back out there on Thursday and practice and get ready for (the regular season finale at Duke) Saturday. We just have to put this one behind us and get ready to move on from it.”