CHARLOTTE — The North Carolina basketball team had just played perhaps its worst 11 minutes of the season and was headed to the halftime locker room trailing Texas A&M by 14 Sunday when a whistle brought the players back onto the court.
The Aggies, anticipating the buzzer, were called for traveling and 0.4 seconds were put back on the clock.
It wasn’t much. But it did give the Tar Heels a chance at cutting into the deficit and building a little momentum for a possible second half comeback. And everything went right on the ensuing play.
Sterling Manley came off a screen and got free in the lane and Theo Pinson hit him with a perfect lob pass at the rim. Only instead of going in, Manley’s shot rimmed out.
No basket. No momentum. No comeback.
Instead of rallying, UNC continued to fall further behind, as its season came to a disappointing end with an 86-65 drubbing at the hands of the seventh-seeded Aggies in the NCAA West Region second round at Spectrum Center.
“At that moment, I was saying, ‘We’re right there. We’re missing shots that we make all the time. Let’s just keep playing, Let’s keep doing what we do,’” Pinson said. “They just didn’t go in. They didn’t go in tonight. It happens.”
It couldn’t have happened at a more inopportune time for the defending national champions.
A team that shot 46 percent from the floor and averaged 80.7 points per game this season made just 33 percent and was limited to 65 points against its taller opponent. That cold shooting included an icy 6 for 31 performance from beyond the 3-point line.
To make matters worse, the second-seeded Tar Heels — who rank No. 2 nationally in rebounding margin — got pounded on the boards to the tune of 50-36 on the way to their worst NCAA tournament defeat since a 23-point drubbing at the hands of Arkansas in the 1990 Midwest Region semifinal. The loss was UNC’s first in an NCAA tournament game in Charlotte and only its second in 36 tournament games within the borders of its home state.
“There’s a hundred things I could say and yet, there’s not a lot to say,” a teary-eyed coach Roy Williams said. “We got beat by a team that played better than we did.”
Williams expressed concern about the matchup with A&M in his comments leading up to Sunday’s game, saying that he’d lost sleep over the size of an Aggies front line that presented a difficult matchup for his preferred small lineup.
A&M (22-12) features three players 6-foot-9 or better, each taller than UNC’s biggest starter.
Those three — 6-10 Tyler Davis, 6-10 Robert Williams and 6-9 D.J. Hogg — combined for 40 points, 30 rebounds and six of their team’s eight blocked shots.
And yet, for the first nine minutes of the game, it was the Tar Heels (26-11) that looked as if they had the Aggies on the ropes.
UNC made five of its first nine shots, with four players getting into the scoring column before the first TV timeout. A short jumper by Luke Maye just after that break put the Tar Heels ahead 20-13 with 11:34 remaining in the half.
But that was the last field goal they would make for nearly the next seven minutes.
A&M scored 15 straight points and UNC mustered only a pair of Joel Berry free throws before Maye finally broke the drought off a Pinson behind-the-back pass at the 4:03 mark. By that time, the Tar Heels trailed by 10 and they never recovered.
“At the start of the game we were getting to the basket, being aggressive and that’s what we wanted to do,” said Berry, who finished his award-winning college career by scoring 21 points, but only on 7 for 17 shooting. “Then we just started settling for outside shots and the three wasn’t going in.
“On the defensive end for us, their big guys got going and it was just tough. I think we just stopped being aggressive after we got the lead and that’s why everything turned around.”
Despite its size disadvantage, UNC came into Sunday’s game with some confidence because of the way it had handled Duke’s big men in an ACC Tournament semifinal win last week in Brooklyn. The fact that A&M also plays a lot of zone defense also figured to work to the Tar Heels advantage.
But while they were able to get the ball into the soft spot of the Aggies’ zone, just as they did against Duke and Syracuse, they weren’t as efficient at converting those opportunities into points.
“We took them out of rhythm, took them out of transition and fortunately when they did get some open looks at the free-throw line against our zone, they missed shots they usually make,” A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “You’ve got to have some of that happen at this time of year to continue to advance.”
While UNC was struggling with its perimeter shooting, the Aggies went 10 for 24 from 3-point range. The two biggest came from Admon Gilder and Hogg to start the second half, when the Aggies turned that 14-point halftime lead into a 20-point cushion.
The advantage eventually grew to 24 and never dropped below 17 from that point on.
Eventually, the reality of the situation began to set in and the Tar Heels’ body language began to show it before Williams finally raised the white flag by taking Berry and Pinson — who finished with 11 assists and seven rebounds, but only four points — out for the final time to a standing ovation and tearful hugs.
“These two guys have given me so many thrills and taken me on so many unbelievable rides,” the UNC coach said of his senior leaders, who helped their team to the past two national championship games. “I didn’t picture it ending like this. I pictured it ending with these guys having a huge smile on their face. But that’s not college basketball.”