On New Year’s Eve, Georgia Tech stunned North Carolina at McCamish Pavilion, a 75-63 win that seized the attention of Atlanta and Tech fans everywhere. It proved to be the first volley of an ACC season that surpassed all expectations.
As it turned out, it was a pivotal game for the losers, too. On Thursday, after their ACC tournament quarterfinal defeat of Miami at the Barclays Center, three North Carolina players reflected on the Tar Heels’ upset loss to the Yellow Jackets in the ACC opener for both teams.
All three said that the game provided a teaching point that served them in their pursuit and capture of the ACC regular-season title. With size and speed across the roster and a rabid offensive rebounding game, the Tar Heels have the look of a contender to win the national championship.
UNC (27-6) will play Duke on Friday afternoon in one semifinal and is expected to earn a top seed in the NCAA tournament when the field is announced Sunday. But it all might not have been if not for the Jackets getting their attention. Guard Joel Berry said that the team continues to bring up the loss all the time.
“Yeah, because we don’t want to play like that again,” said Berry, a second-team All-ACC pick. “We talk about that game and we talk about how we played at Miami (a 77-62 defeat Jan. 28). If we play like that, we’re not going to reach our goals.”
Against Tech, Berry was 3-for-13 from the field for eight points and turned the ball over a career-high six times. North Carolina shot 33.3 percent from the field, its lowest rate in a game since the 2014-15 season.
“I didn’t play my best,” Berry said. “Just overall, I don’t think we did our best as a team. We just accepted that we lost. And I think everybody on the team did that and we just moved on from that and tried to get better from it.”
Guard Theo Pinson, who missed the game as he was recovering from a stress fracture in his foot, termed it a wakeup call.
“It showed the toughness and grit that you’ve got to have to win in the ACC,” he said. “Great teams all the way down the board. Even with Boston College, they had really good guards.”
North Carolina was 12-2 entering the game, with losses to Kentucky and Indiana. After losing to the Jackets, the Tar Heels won six games in a row before the Miami loss. They finished the regular season with a 14-4 record in ACC play, their eighth regular-season title in coach Roy Williams’ 14 seasons.
Forward Justin Jackson was way off his standards, shooting 6-for-17 from the field and 0-for-5 from 3-point range for 16 points. In his career, he has had only two games where he took more 3-pointers without a make. He had three turnovers to contribute to the team’s season high of 20. Jackson was named ACC player of the year this past Sunday.
“We played extremely bad and they played extremely well,” Jackson said. “But, honestly, for that, that was probably the biggest game of the year for us. We realized that we’ve got to come out and play every single day and each game is going to be tough, and I think that helped us get to the position where we were regular-season champs and we’re at where we’re at now.”