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What UNC basketball’s loss to UConn taught Tar Heels about potential March Madness run

North Carolina basketball wants to return to the NCAA Tournament this spring — after unceremoniously missing the postseason event last season — and the Tar Heels got an early taste of what that will take Tuesday.

No. 9 UNC (7-2, 1-0 ACC) fell to No. 5 UConn (8-1, 0-0 Big East), 87-76, on at Madison Square Garden in a top 10 matchup that felt like a game right out of March Madness.

Carolina kept pace with the defending champion Huskies in the first half, even leading at points early in the game. But it wasn’t enough.

“It was a lot of fun just going out there competing against them, and they brought the fire,” Bacot said. “It was a huge measuring stick for us just to see where we were at and we know we got to work on, but I’m proud of how we played.”

Photos: North Carolina falls to UConn in top-ten battle in New York

It felt like a game of missed opportunities for the Heels, virtually all of which came down to small details. Afterward, coach Hubert Davis and the players mentioned miscommunication, defending the post to a fault, and missing shots that they normally make as reasons for the setback. Additionally, UConn capitalized on turnovers. It scored 14 points off seven UNC turnovers, while the Huskies committed eight, but the UNC only turned those into seven points.

The consensus, however, was that the No. 1 area on which the team must improve is rebounding, on both ends of the floor. UNC knew going into the Garden that the winner would most likely lead in that statistic. The Huskies finished with 43 boards and 11 on the offensive glass for eight second-chance points. The Heels had 33 rebounds, with 10 on the offensive end and six points on put-back attempts.

“I think that’s what was killing us, rather than their length,” guard RJ Davis said.

Hubert Davis said that comes down to a will to win the 50/50 balls and who wants it more. There were times in the game where it looked more like a volleyball match under the basket than players maintaining possession after a missed shot.

North Carolina coach Hubert Davis removes his coat after an argument with the officials following a technical foul on Armando Bacot (5) during the first half against Connecticut in the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday, December 5, 2023 at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY.
North Carolina coach Hubert Davis removes his coat after an argument with the officials following a technical foul on Armando Bacot (5) during the first half against Connecticut in the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday, December 5, 2023 at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY.

“We’ve got to be willing to do whatever — push, claw, bite, whatever — to be able to get that rebound,” Hubert Davis said. “We’ve got really tough and resilient guys and this is something that we can grow from, we’ll improve on and be a better rebounding team next time we play.”

There’s also something to be said about having the right mindset; one of growth, accountability and positivity. The best teams know how to take negative experiences and turn them into positive lessons.

UNC feels like it’s in a position to do that. RJ Davis said he’s disappointed, but is not hanging his head.

North Carolina’s R.J. Davis (4) leaves the court following the Tar Heels’ 87-76 loss to Connecticut in the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday, December 5, 2023 at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY. Davis lead all scores with 26 points.
North Carolina’s R.J. Davis (4) leaves the court following the Tar Heels’ 87-76 loss to Connecticut in the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday, December 5, 2023 at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY. Davis lead all scores with 26 points.

The Tar Heels played alongside the reigning national champion and saw where it broke down — and where it succeeded. From balls punched out of the air to allowing the Huskies to get hot from deep, there were a lot of details worth noting for long-term success.

And, having direct knowledge of what needs to happen to compete with the title favorites — something many teams don’t get — will hopefully help in March.

UNC now has 10 days off before facing Kentucky at the CBS Sports Classic. The Tar Heels said they plan on taking the time to heal their bodies, minds and improving as a whole — not just preparing for an opponent.

“I think we’ve gotten better every day. I do think we’re getting better and have grown each and every practice and game,” Hubert Davis said. “These next 10 days, they’ve got finals, but it’s also an opportunity to work on us…now, we have an opportunity to practice on us.”