CHARLOTTE — Live by the bomb. Die by the bomb.
To modern basketball fans, in a game centered on spreading it out and shooting threes from deep, it’s a warning of the danger that more and more teams face when they focus their play on the three-point shot.
That vulnerability finally caught up to North Carolina on Sunday, as the No. 2 seed Tar Heels shot 6-of-31 from beyond the arc in a 86-65 second-round loss to No. 7 seed Texas A&M in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“This team, more than anything, relied a lot on the three-point shot,” junior guard Kenny Williams said. “And they just didn’t fall for us today.”
UNC knew the risk when it went small halfway through the season, benching freshman forward Garrison Brooks for Pitt transfer Cameron Johnson, deviating from Roy Williams’ double post player system that won him three national titles.
It was a necessity. The freshman bigs — Brooks, Sterling Manley, and Brandon Huffman — hadn’t shown enough polish to warrant starting minutes. Putting Johnson at the three and Theo Pinson at the four gave UNC its five best players on the court for the largest amount of minutes.
It worked beautifully at times. When the team was clicking, Joel Berry and Theo Pinson could drive into the lane and finish or kick it out for open shots on the perimeter, where knockdown shooters Johnson, Williams and, on occasion, Luke Maye awaited. Whipping it around the perimeter also netted open looks, particularly against zones. And when some of the shots inevitably missed, there were plenty of the people in the post to get rebounds to reset or get easy layups.
“At the start of the game, we were getting to the basket, being aggressive, and that's what we wanted to do,” Berry said.
But against A&M, after a 20-13 start, the shots didn’t fall on the outside. You expected the Tar Heels to adjust, to go inside, to attack off the drive, getting back to what worked all season. But with 6-foot-10 terrors Robert Williams and Tyler Davis in the paint, UNC never charged in, instead settling for jumpers. It was, in part, because there was no one to turn to in the post who could handle it after Luke Maye got into foul trouble in the first half.
“I still think that Garrison, Sterling, Huff and Walker (Miller), they are — those guys are going to be good players,” Roy Williams said. “But today was a fear. I guess we dodged it quite a bit all season long.”
Davis and Williams were dominant, combining for 26 points and 22 rebounds. It limited UNC’s approach and forced more shooters off the floor to just get bodies in there to try and contain them. Brooks and Manley were tasked to get boards and try to stop them inside while getting something, anything, going in the paint.
So UNC's sharpshooters went to work on the outside, raining down shot after shot. The looks were there against the Aggies at times, even late in the game. But every once in a while, sharp shooters just miss.
“A lot of them just (hit) back rim and (went) out,” Cam Johnson said. “I’m sure every one we shot we felt good, just wasn’t our day to make shots.”
Joel Berry: 2-for-10. Cam Johnson: 1-for-7. Kenny Williams: 1-for-5. Luke Maye: 1-for-4. When the 2017-18 Tar Heels had nights like that, things didn’t go well. And it’s a risk that finally came back to bite them at the worst possible time.
Now, Berry and Pinson are gone. All the forwards are expected to be back. And a highly-rated class of freshmen are coming to Chapel Hill.
Will the three ball still be a staple next year, what makes the Tar Heel engine go, as it was this season? Maye, Williams and Johnson will all likely be back, barring anyone’s NBA stock rapidly rising. Andrew Platek and Brandon Robinson will have another summer of getting up shots, too.
But the freshmen bigs, now sophomores, will be there, as well. Bigger, stronger, smarter. And perhaps, Roy Williams feels he can start one, or two, or three of them, and trust them down the stretch — giving the Heels' size down low like Hansbrough and Zeller, Johnson and Meeks, Meeks and Hicks, and so many other winning combos before.
But that's all next year. Topics for discussion in diners across the Tar Heel state. It's all Carolina fans have now. Because for one final time in 2018, UNC had to live by the three.
Sunday night, the bomb finally fizzled out.