UNC’s Williams: ‘Everything we touched turned bad’

UNC’s Cole Anthony (2) fouls Syracuse guard Joseph Girard III during the second half of Wednesday’s ACC tournament game in Greensboro (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

GREENSBORO — Roy Williams was making reference to Wednesday’s 81-53 loss to Syracuse, North Carolina’s most lopsided defeat ever in an ACC tournament.

But he might as well have been summing up the entire 2019-20 season.

“Everything we touched turned bad,” the Tar Heels’ coach said. 

It began early with an injury to star freshman Cole Anthony and deteriorated from there. Along the way, UNC lost for the first time in forever — literally — to Clemson in Chapel Hill, suffered through a seven-game losing streak that included an epic implosion against arch-rival Duke and finished dead last in the ACC standings.

While there was a brief glimmer of hope when the slate was wiped clean with the start of the postseason and an impressive opening round tournament win against Virginia Tech on Tuesday, any thoughts of a miraculous five-game run to the title ended quickly Wednesday.

Syracuse (18-14) scored the game’s first seven points and put the Tar Heels away with a 15-0 blitz late in the first half, turning the final 20 minutes into a somber march to a conclusion everyone saw coming.

That includes Williams, although it took the Hall of Fame coach until almost the bitter end before he finally allowed the reality to sink in.

“Tonight, for the first time in my life, I felt sort of hopeless,” he said. “I couldn’t find any solutions. I’ve lost before. We’ve had great teams that have lost before. But tonight wasn’t much fun.”

Williams said he tried virtually everything he could think of during the course of the season in an effort to get things headed in the right direction, but admitted that he never “found the right buttons to push.”

“Even today,” he said, “I got them together after pregame meal and before we went over the scouting report and talked to them about what’s going on in the world and told them things are changing, things are changing with this tournament and the whole bit, but let’s just get it out in the open and see what questions you have because I wanted just to really focus on the game. Evidently that didn’t work, either.”

The ACC announced earlier in the day that the remainder of the tournament — if it’s played at all — would be held without fans in the stands because of concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.

While the news may or may not have had a negative effect on the Tar Heels, the Orange had no such distractions.

They were highly motivated to exact a little revenge on a UNC team that embarrassed them 92-79 at home less than two weeks ago.

The Tar Heels (14-19) shot better than 50 percent from the floor and made 11 3-pointers in that game in what was arguably their best performance of the ACC schedule. And coach Jim Boeheim’s team was determined not to let that happen again.

“We came out today wanting to take it a little personal,” said Elijah Hughes, an East Carolina transfer who led the way with 27 points. “They came to our home court and they beat us and we just wanted to take it personal.”

Only once after digging itself an early double-digit hole did UNC give any indication that it might be capable of making a game of it. That came with 6:47 left in the half when a pair of Leaky Black free throws narrowed the deficit to just 24-20.

The Tar Heels, however, scored just two more points for the rest of the half and went into the break down by 21. 

And it only got worse from there.

“I think sometimes in our season everyone didn’t come as hard as they should have, come as hard to work as we should have,” said junior forward Garrison Brooks, the only UNC player to score in double figures, with 18 points. “As a leader I think that I have to do a better job motivating everyone to come to work every day and come with our hardhat and lunch pail to show that every day is meaningful and every day means something to us.”

Despite appearances to the contrary, Brooks said he didn’t think his team threw in the towel in the second half.

“I don’t think that we quit from that time,” he said. “We took a blow, but I don’t think we quit after that.”

In a season of forgettable milestones, it was almost fitting that they should come with one final worst.

The 28-point margin surpassed the 26-point beatdown the Tar Heels absorbed from Duke in the 2001 ACC tournament. At least that lopsided loss came in the championship game.

This one came before any of the top four seeds arrived at Greensboro Coliseum.

“It’s a very difficult time right now,” Williams said. “We didn’t play very well, and I certainly didn’t coach very well. Syracuse came out early and made shots, and we got in foul trouble in the first five minutes. There’s not a lot to say.”

Except that the 2019-20 season is mercifully over.