After loss, Tar Heels wonder what's next

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina forward Brice Johnson’s immediate thought upon seeing J.J. Mann make the 3-pointer that put Belmont ahead for good with 14 seconds left perfectly summed up the moment.

It could also be used to summarize the potential outlook for the Tar Heels’ season without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald in the lineup.

“My God,” Johnson said. “What do we do?”

Mann scored a career-high 28 points to lead the Bruins (3-1) to an 83-80 upset over No. 12 UNC before 15,205 stunned Tar Heels faithful in the Dean E. Smith Center.

The Bruins knew what to do. They celebrated.

Belmont fans giddily took turns jumping in photos with Mann still in uniform outside of the locker room. A few players asked if they could head back onto the court to take their own keepsake shots.

“We’ve had some upsets in the past but we’ve never had one as big as this on the road with a top-12 team,” Mann said. “It means everything to us. We’ve got so many new guys it just gives us so much confidence.”

Confidence is not something currently oozing out of Chapel Hill. Carolina often has the look of a team waiting for an offensive leader to step forward. That was evident in its final possession of the game, trailing 81-80.

James Michael McAdoo scored a career-high 27 points and nearly matched his personal best with 13 rebounds. Yet he didn’t get the ball. Marcus Paige, who scored 17 points, didn’t get it, either.

UNC (2-1) looked confused in the half court as time ticked off the clock and ended up with a 10-footer in the lane from J.P. Tokoto. The shot hit the back rim and led to a Belmont run out for a layup at the buzzer.

“I wanted Marcus to go get the ball but I haven’t practiced it enough,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “We didn’t execute at that point and that’s my fault.”

If poll voters on Monday view the absence of Hairston, who led the team in scoring last season, and McDonald, a key sixth man who would add perimeter depth, as a long-term situation, then Carolina can say goodbye to the rankings altogether. As it stands, that No. 12 spot UNC held probably wasn’t deserved with its current lineup.

Make no mistake, though, the loss wasn’t about the players that weren’t in the lineup. Carolina made just 22 of 48 free throw attempts -- it hadn’t had that many misses in more than 50 years. Williams said he has had his team shoot 200 free throws in practice on three occasions and the last time they did everyone made 70 percent or better.

Tokoto, who was just 4-of-16 from the line, shot 84 percent in practice. But it was clear after he made his first attempt that he was struggling. Tokoto wasn’t alone. McAdoo, who shot 81 percent in practice, made just 11-of-19.

“Nobody wants to miss their free throws,” McAdoo said. “Stepping to the line everything felt good up until it didn’t go in for me. We have to remember they’re an important part of the game.”

As much as missed free throws, Carolina hurt itself with poor communication on defense. Williams had his players switching all screens after watching the Bruins make seven of 21 3-pointers in the first half.

Belmont, which had made only 15 3-pointers combined in its first three games, was one shy of tying the record for opponent made 3-pointers in the Williams era at Carolina. That still didn’t make the Heels react with urgency on Mann’s final attempt.

“It’s just a mental lapse, I guess, that’s what kind of happened on the last shot of the game,” Tokoto said. “We were supposed to switch it and I kind of saw him going left and keep going. I knew I had to step up and at least contest the shot and credit to him, he made a great shot.”

Reece Chamberlain dribbled the ball up the floor, flicked it to Mann and effectively screened Tokoto and Luke Davis. Both players got caught behind Chamberlain, giving Mann enough room for a clear look at the top of the key.

“Coach called trailer pitch,” Mann said. “Reece and I work on that handoff play all the time. That’s a shot I shot a lot this summer, getting ready for moments like this.”

It was just the second nonconference loss at home in Williams’ 11 seasons. What the Heels will do now is a legitimate question that has no easy answers.

Williams seemingly made the right moves. He replaced freshman Nate Britt and used Davis for much of the second half to help the Heels shore up their defense. He used Johnson at center, as he did against Holy Cross on Friday, to be better suited for switching picks. Johnson’s 14 points also helped boost the frontcourt offensively.

And after trailing by 11 early in the second half, Carolina rallied from down 60-51 with a 22-5 run. But it couldn’t hold on and Tokoto said they’re already letting go of this loss.

“It’s behind us now, we can’t go back in the past and change whatever was wrong,” Tokoto said. “We just got to keep moving forward and not let things affect you.”