“He was in rhythm, and I felt like I almost touched the ball,” Usher said. “I felt like it barely grazed over my finger while it was going into the rim. All I could do was turn around and watch it go in. I gave it literally my best defensive contain. He was probably five feet from the 3 and made it.
Credit: ArLuther Lee
Credit: ArLuther Lee
Playing a highly talented Tar Heels team with a significant size advantage, the Jackets needed to be at the top of their game and for North Carolina to be well off of its. Neither happened, and Tech was thrashed in an 88-65 loss in Chapel Hill, N.C.
“I feel like Duke and UNC are the largest teams that we have to play, and with our shortage of size right now, I’m very glad to have them out of the schedule,” Usher said. “I don’t want to see them unless we have to play them in the ACC Tournament.”
Tech (7-9 overall, 1-5 ACC) lost for the eighth time in its past 10 games, unable to build on its win at Boston College on Wednesday.
North Carolina (12-4, 4-1) swept the Jackets after taking the first game at McCamish Pavilion Dec. 5 in scoring the most points that Tech has given up in a regulation game since giving up 97 points in a December 2019 home loss to Syracuse. The two losses to the Tar Heels, by a combined 40 points, are the two most decisive of Tech’s season.
“They’re good enough to go to the Final Four,” coach Josh Pastner said of the Tar Heels. “I think they’re really, really good.”
After defeating Boston College with Usher at center and serving as the focal point of Pastner’s Princeton offense, the Jackets went with the same lineup against a North Carolina starting five that included the 6-10 Bacot and 6-foot-9 forward Brady Manek. It was the best option afforded Pastner with center Rodney Howard out with an ankle injury and backup post men Jordan Meka and Saba Gigiberia not ready to handle the responsibilities of facilitating the offense.
But Tech was not sharp from the start, committing three fouls and turning the ball over three times in the first five minutes of the game in falling behind 13-4 by the 15:57 mark. The Jackets did not move the ball well and Tech guard Michael Devoe was bottled up by UNC forward Leaky Black.
“I thought it was 50/50,” Pastner said of the team’s ratio of good offensive possessions vs. bad. “Half the game, we had good movement. The other half, I thought we were pressing.”
The shooting of North Carolina guard R.J Davis, who scored 16 of his 21 points in the first half with 4-for-5 shooting from 3-point range, helped the Tar Heels surge to a 42-26 halftime lead, a margin that was never challenged after halftime. (North Carolina, in fact, led by as many as 32.) He also doled out six assists with five rebounds.
The Jackets have had their fill of Davis, a sophomore. In the teams’ first meeting, Davis scored 23 points with 4-for-6 shooting from 3-point range with five rebounds and five assists. North Carolina came into the game leading the ACC in 3-point shooting at 40.1%. The Tar Heels were 9-for-25 from 3-point range.
Bacot was a problem all his own. Agile and skilled, Bacot matched the career-high 29 points he scored against Virginia in the Tar Heels’ last game on 10-for-16 shooting from the field and 9-for-9 from the line. Gigiberia, who played 14 minutes when the Jackets went with a bigger lineup, could not slow down Bacot, an early leader for ACC player of the year honors.
It was the third consecutive game that Tech’s opponent has shot 55% or better on two-point field goals, something of a concession that Pastner has had to make in going with a smaller lineup, and one that the Jackets could not overcome on their end with 3-for-14 shooting from 3-point range.
“We looked very small compared to Carolina other than when Saba played,” Pastner said. “But that’s the tradeoff. And if you’re not making 3′s, then it ends up, you get yourself in a bad way.”
Devoe, the second-leading scorer in the ACC at 20.5 points per game, finished with a season-low two points.
Defended tightly by Black, Devoe didn’t score until 13:08 remained in the second half and finished with 1-for-5 shooting and six turnovers. In one forgettable sequence at the start of the second half – which, it should be noted, followed him personally killing two consecutive Tar Heels possessions with a steal and a drawn charge – Devoe traveled when he ended up in a Black/Bacot double team against the baseline, missed a rare open 3-point try and then, after pulling down a North Carolina miss and leading a fast break, turned the ball over when Black stripped him and the ball went off of his foot.
“Got to give credit to Leaky Black, I thought he did a good job defensively,” Pastner said. “However, if we’re not making shots around him, then the entire defense can kind of load to him.”
Tech guard Tristan Maxwell, who had a breakout game Wednesday at Boston College with 22 points on 7-for-11 shooting from 3-point range, did not have many opportunities. He was scoreless on 0-for-6 shooting, including 0-for-3 from 3-point range in a return to his home state.
“He had a tough night,” Pastner said. “As I saw the first half, maybe there was a couple shots that we didn’t let it come to him.”
Usher was easily the Jackets’ most effective player, scoring 22 points on 9-for-16 shooting with seven rebounds and three assists. Guard Deivon Smith had a second productive game in a row, scoring a season-high 16 points on 7-for-11 shooting with three assists and two steals.
After the high of the win over Boston College, “it’s super tough, but I’ve got to be a leader for my team and let ‘em know it’s on to the next one,” Usher said. “Just because they beat us by more than 10 doesn’t mean we get two losses. It was just one loss in the column. We have to get back to it and keep working.”