Maybe it was the imposing presence of Kansas 7-foot center Jeff Withey. Or it might have been the intimidating and hostile crowd in the Sprint Center that rattled the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Or maybe it was just one of those nights when the dadgum ball wouldn’t go in the hole for Roy Williams’ team.
Whatever the reasons, the Tar Heels shot a season-worst 30.1 percent — making just 22 of 73 shots — in their 70-58 loss to Kansas in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday night.
Even when the Tar Heels led 30-21 at halftime, they made just 11 of 42 (26.2 percent) from the floor, but Kansas was even worse at seven of 28, and that 25 percent mark was the worst shooting half ever by KU in the NCAA Tournament.
“We were both ugly on the offensive end in the first half,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said, “but we were swarming so much defensively, we were able to get some fast-break opportunities
“It was definitely a nightmare in the second half we didn’t quite have the same energy, and they perhaps had a little more. They got into a rhythm, started making shots. We couldn’t stop them. We struggled shooting the ball the whole game. You have to give them credit. They led the nation in defensive field-goal percentage (36 percent) for a reason.”
Withey blocked five shots, and he altered countless others, forcing the Tar Heels — who shot 45 percent from the field this season — to put shots up higher off the glass, double-clutch and shoot off balance or out of rhythm.
When Carolina elected to stay away from Withey in the paint, they were unable to consistently make three-point shots, hitting just six of 21.
“Withey does a great job of protecting the rim, makes it tough to make shots around the basket,” North Carolina guard Marcus Paige said. “Our shooters never had a chance to get into rhythm.
“I don’t think the crowd really had anything to do with it. For a lot of the first half, they didn’t get a chance to get involved because our level of energy and intensity was so high.”
Not only was North Carolina ineffective challenging Withey and forward Kevin Young, the Tar Heels made just six of 21 three-point shots. Reggie Bullock, who averages 14.3 points per game, was held to one-of-seven shooting while he was mainly guarded by Travis Releford.
“They just crowded the shooters,” Paige said. “Releford did a good job on Reggie. He would play him high, try to make him change his cut. Also, they tried to pressure us knowing they had a great shot blocker underneath to help them as a second line of defense.
“We did get some good looks and didn’t knock them down. One time, P.J. (Hairston) had a wide-open shot and kind of fumbled the ball. That’s kind of how it went for us in terms of outside shooting.”
Still, the Tar Heels, 25-11, sapped the energy of the Sprint Center crowd by taking a 14-4 lead and owning a nine-point lead at halftime.
“I thought we had it,” guard Dexter Strickland said. “I told our guys to start the second half that we couldn’t let up. We just didn’t respond well in the second half. They made their shots in the second half. We folded on defense in the second half, and that cost us the game.”
The loss was the third in three meetings against Kansas for Williams, the Jayhawks’ coach from 1989-2003 before moving to North Carolina, where he has won two national championships. Bill Self’s Kansas teams beat the Tar Heels 84-66 in the 2008 Final Four en route to the national title and 80-67 in last year’s Elite Eight.
“It is not any more painful,” Williams said of losing to Kansas. “We lost to another basketball team. The fact I coached there 15 years is extremely important to me, but it doesn’t add anything.
“I hurt for myself. I hurt for the kids in the locker room. NCAA Tournament, the suddenness, the swiftness with which your season is over with is dramatic. It hurts everywhere.”
Williams said he still lives with every loss, including those when he was at Kansas, a school he took to four Final Fours without winning a title.
“In 1990, we lost to UCLA in the second round I’m still (ticked) off about that because we were pretty doggone good. I thought we were good enough to perhaps sneak in and win the whole blessed thing.
“I remember UTEP in ’92 Virginia in ’96. I can name every one of them, losing in the NCAA Tournament Syracuse in the (2003) national championship game, my last as a coach at Kansas.
“Every one of them hurt.”