CHAPEL HILL – For a few moments it appeared as if norm had been restored to the Dean E. Smith Center and the North Carolina basketball program.
Trailing Ohio University 71-53 with 6:08 left in the game, the Tar Heels staged a comeback that nearly entered the history books as another classic display of UNC dramatics, of which this program wrote the book for the last four decades.
This season, however, resembles anything but normal and the comeback fell short as the Bobcats held off the hard-charging Heels, 86-78, before a crowd of 13,252 in the building named after the man who orchestrated so many of those famous rallies.
"I stand here disappointed in our effort," UNC head coach Matt Doherty said. "We did not seem to be into it for the first 32 and a half minutes for whatever reason I have no idea. You can theorize all you want, but only, I guess, the guys know why."
With the Bobcats (16-8) ahead by 18, the Heels went to work. Freshman Jawad Williams, hampered by a high ankle sprain, knocked down a 3-pointer. Senior Jason Capel followed with another 3 to cut the margin to 12. Then UNC's trio of freshmen took over.
Jackie Manuel converted a layup on a feed from Adam Boone. After a Bobcat layup – a familiar scoring option for the Mid-American Conference team tonight – Williams tipped in Manuel's missed 3 and then rammed home a thunderous slam after a steal at midcourt. The crowd-pleasing jam prompted Ohio coach Tim O'Shea to call time out with 3:15 left and holding a 73-65 advantage.
Seconds later, Manuel and Scott nearly forced another Bobcat turnover in front of Ohio's bench but the official ruled the ball went off a UNC hand and out of bounds.
After Boone was called for a charge, the Heels forced a five-second call on an inbounds play that quickly led to a Williams 3 from the left wing to cut it to 73-68 with 2:17 to play. Scott immediately picked a steal in the backcourt for an easy layup, and the Heels had carved 15 points off the margin in 4:05, bringing the Dean Dome to a frenzy and forcing the 'Cats to call yet another timeout ahead 73-70 with 2:08 left.
"We scrambled. I mean we were trying to fight for our lives there at the end, and trying to get back on top," said Boone. "We got very close but it was too little, too late. We dug too much of a hole for ourselves and while you definitely think you can come back, you don't want to dig yourself a hole like we did tonight."
In all, the youngest Heels scored six consecutive baskets in the flurry.
"We were just energized and we wanted the game," Scott said. "And I think that if we would've played that way the whole game we would've won."
The Bobcats, however, responded with four quick points and after a Scott 3-pointer, the teams traded a few baskets before Ohio salted the game away, converting 9 of their final 10 from the charity stripe for the eight-point margin.
"We got after it but it was too late," said Scott. "They hit big shots and we didn't. We played well down the stretch – the last seven minutes – to lose that, to get the fans behind us the way we did, it really hurts."
The Bobcats' wonderful 6-foot-7, 260-pound junior forward Brandon Hunter was the best player on the floor as he finished with 20 points, nine rebounds, six assists and a pair of steals. For good measure, he even blocked a shot. Steve Esterkamp paced Ohio with 23 points while Sonny Johnson came off the bench – his usual role – to toss in 19.
UNC (7-17) was led by Scott's 17 points while Kris Lang followed with 16 and Williams tallied 15.
Ohio jumped out to an 8-2 lead five minutes into the game scoring on three layups and a dunk. The Bobcats, however, then went cold – joining an already frigid bunch of Tar Heels.
Yet another quick Ohio spurt – two 3s, a layup and a jam – pushed the Bobcats' advantage to 20-12 with 6:25 left in the half, prompting UNC to call a timeout.
"I just think we came out very sluggish," Scott said. "They were hitting big shots and we were getting good looks, but we weren't knocking our shots down."
Carolina began to figure out Ohio's extended zone defense by utilizing the high post and getting some easy looks – both inside and out.
Manuel hit Lang for a soft lay and then nailed a 3 from the right baseline. Scott drained a 3-pointer and after a Bobcats score Capel registered a traditional 3-point play bringing the half-empty Smith Center to a loud roar and Ohio's lead to just 27-23 with 2:20 left before intermission.
After trading backets Ohio led at the half, 33-29.
But for the Heels, winners for just the second time in 2002 three days earlier, the loss can't impact the team's morale, says Lang.
"You gotta stay positive," the senior from Gastonia said. "You can't get down with what the media says or what the fans say. You just gotta keep playing your game. It's the team thing, it's us in there that have to believe in each other."
Andrew Jones is in his sixth year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He is also in his fourth year as a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a nightly radio show on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and once published The College Game and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at: AJWAAV@aol.com.