You would’ve thought North Carolina head coach Roy Williams might mention someone else first in his postgame presser following Saturday's 95-91 overtime loss to N.C. State (15-7, 5-4) at the Smith Center.
He didn't talk about Wolfpack guard Allerik Freeman, who scored 29 points and went 7-for-7 from three — the first UNC opponent to ever do that. He didn't even talk about his own high scorer, Luke Maye, who had 31 points and 12 rebounds.
No, it was N.C. State’s Omer Yurtseven, the seven-foot Turkish sophomore who gave UNC (16-6, 5-4 ACC) problems all game with his length in the post. Yurtseven’s stat line isn’t going to blow anyone away — he had 16 points and 13 rebounds — but his ability to keep possessions alive was key in his team’s upset win.
“Yurtseven is really a threat inside and challenges every shot,” Williams said. “He scores and also defends inside.”
The Istanbul native had seven offensive rebounds on Saturday, none bigger than a put-back bucket with 30 seconds left in overtime to give N.C. State a 3-point cushion.
That lay-in over Maye — who was giving up four inches on the seven-footer — was emblematic of UNC’s lack of size throughout the season and how it could cost them down the stretch.
Carolina has rolled out a small starting lineup for six straight games now, dating back to a win over Boston College on Jan. 9. At 6-foot-8, Maye is the tallest player of the five, so the traditionally-big Tar Heels are naturally going to give up some space in the paint.
That’s fine, of course, if they can capitalize on the advantages of playing small ball, namely three-point shooting. On Saturday, though, it wasn’t falling from deep for a Tar Heel squad that has now dropped two straight to fall to 5-4 in the ACC.
UNC was a putrid 4-for-19 (21.2 percent) from beyond the arc. N.C. State, though, was a different story. The Wolfpack shot a sizzling 15-for-30 from three, becoming the first UNC opponent to make 15 threes since Belmont in 2013.
“They just made shots,” said Maye, the only Tar Heel who made multiple threes. “We’ve got to get better.”
Carolina’s inability to defend the preimeter can be tied back to its lack of size in the post. Perimeter players beat their man off the dribble, help defense collapses and open shooters are left to set their feet and let it rip from deep. There isn’t a rim protector in the paint to give UNC defenders the confidence to stay with their guy outside.
At 6-foot-11, Sterling Manley gives Carolina that length it lacks on defense. But his youth and inexperience mean he can’t be the go-to guy, at least not yet.
That much was clear when North Carolina's late pressure on inbounder Torin Dorn forced a turnover with three seconds left in overtime. Manley, who was face-guarding Dorn, caught the ball just outside the paint with UNC down two and … panicked.
With three timeouts in his pocket, the freshman hastily tried to feed a shooter outside. Instead, he threw it away to Markell Johnson, who was fouled and iced the game with two free throws.
And so the Tar Heels fell to sixth in a conference they have won the past two years. With Virginia taking a four-game lead over UNC on Saturday, North Carolina looks hard-pressed to repeat that feat again this year.
“We should be better than 5-4 in the ACC,” said Cameron Johnson, the graduate transfer from Pittsburgh. “We need to want it a little bit more.”
That, and figure out a way to defend players who are four or five inches taller than them. It’s going to be a tall task.