CHAPEL HILL — Cole Anthony was back and it was almost as if he’d never been away once he shook off the rust of his nearly two-month injury layoff.
The problem is, his team also had a familiar look to it.
And not a good one.
The star point guard, who missed 11 games after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee in mid-December, scored 26 points in his much-anticipated return to the court Saturday.
But as dominant as his performance was, especially in the second half, it still wasn’t good enough to keep the Tar Heels from yet another loss — a 71-70 heartbreaker to Boston College at Smith Center that snapped a two-game winning streak and dropped coach Roy Williams’ team back below .500 for the season.
“I was a little nervous at first,” Anthony said afterward. “(Some of) my shots were short, but at the end of the day basketball is basketball and that’s what I love to do. I was just having fun out there.”
Everyone in Carolina blue and white was having fun for awhile in the second, when after the Tar Heels fell behind by as many as 10 with 12 minutes to go, Anthony took over and willed his team back into contention.
He scored 20 of his 26 points after halftime and while he was only 5 of 14 from the floor (2 of 8 from 3-point range), the likely one-and-done freshman managed to get to the free throw line 14 times — making them all — and scored on an aggressive drive to the basket to tie the game at 70 with 30 seconds left.
“I thought Cole was sensational for us,” said Williams, who added didn’t come into the game planning to play Anthony 26 minutes in his first game back.
But he didn’t have much choice.
No one else on the Tar Heels was contributing much in the way of offense on a night in which they shot just 36 percent from the floor overall (22 of 61) and 21.1 percent from 3-point range (4 of 19) as a team.
No one struggled more than Garrison Brooks, the hero of Monday’s win at NC State when he terrorized the Wolfpack for 25 points. The junior big man was just 5 of 15 from the floor, but what’s worse, he missed all seven of his free throw attempts.
All too often, he and fellow big man Armando Bacot were little more than spectators watching Anthony control the ball on the perimeter than posting up and looking to score inside.
“I feel; like me and Garrison got a little stagnant,just watching instead of doing what we were doing (while Anthony was out),” Bacot said. “We were just kind of leaving it all up to him, but that’s kind of unfair to him. Me and Garrison, we definitely have to do better.”
Anthony said that despite his impressive stat line, he needs to get better, too.
That was never more obvious than on the game’s final possession.
With BC holding a one-point lead on a pair of free throws by Jared Hamilton with 17 seconds to go, Anthony had trouble directing his teammates into the right spots. Then, with the play having broken down and time running out, he hoisted up a long 3-pointer that missed everything as the buzzer sounded to end the game.
“I wanted to attack the basket,” Williams said. “There was a miscommunication and we settled for a terrible shot.”
For that, Anthony took full responsibility.
“I made a bad decision,” he said. I should have called a timeout. There were a bunch of things I could have done. That’s on me as a point guard.”
It was a lack of court awareness, Anthony said was likely the product of his two-month inactivity.
“It’s about getting that feel back,” he said. “There’s nothing like real game experience and that was the first one I’ve played in since, what’s it February now, six months.”
As long as he was away, Anthony said that he never once thought of shutting his season down to protect his NBA draft status, as some suggested.
“This day and age, a lot of people in my situation probably wouldn’t have come back,” he said. “I can’t blame them for that. But at the end of the day, if you love basketball you’re going to come back and play. And I love the sport. It’s my favorite thing to do in the world.”
Now that he’s back, he said he hasn’t given up on helping the Tar Heels turn things around and make a late run at an NCAA tournament bid.
“We’re going to regroup,” Anthony said. “We can obviously get better as a team, as a unit and just stick together. It was a little deflating to lose the game like that at home, but there’s a lot of basketball to be played. Our season is not over.”