Focus for UNC: Late-game execution

In the final minutes of last month’s loss to UNLV, several North Carolina players said they panicked.

In the final seconds at Kentucky on Saturday, they froze.

Last season, the Tar Heels made an identity out of forging late-game comebacks and making clutch, last-second plays. But in two losses over eight days, they’ve confounded even themselves.

“I feel like we’re tough enough [to win games],’’ sophomore forward Harrison Barnes said after Saturday’s 73-72 loss at Rupp Arena. “We’ve been through some pretty big things last year, but this year, we’re going back and learning some.”

There’s no doubt rebounding is a huge issue for this team; despite a starting front line of 7-feet, 6-11 and 6-8, they’ve been beaten on the boards in four of eight games.

They’ve improved their free-throw shooting of late, but it still stands at only 64.1 percent for the season.

But an equally important issue, point guard Kendall Marshall said, is execution.

Against UNLV in Las Vegas on Nov. 26, the Tar Heels led by four points at halftime, but began the second half with a roughly-four-minute dry spell. During the Runnin’ Rebels’ 14-0 run, UNC started rushing jump shots instead of working to score as a calm, cohesive unit.

“All of a sudden everybody was going one-on-one trying to shoot the ball, thinking they will get us back," coach Roy Williams said.

It never happened. And perhaps more importantly, it never really looked like it was going to happen. The closest UNC got over the final two minutes was seven points.

“Late-game situations – it’s my fault we haven’t practiced that enough,” Williams said after that game. “I’ve got to do a better job in practicing so that they know what to do out there.”

Fast forward to Saturday. First, UNC tried to throw it away with 80 seconds left, when, trailing by four points, a baseline inbounds pass to Dexter Strickland somehow deflected through the junior’s hands and out of bounds for a turnover.

After a UK turnover, UNC reserve Reggie Bullock bailed his team out with a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to a point.

But with about five seconds left, UNC forward John Henson had a game-winning jump shot blocked out of nowhere by UK’s Anthony Davis. Instead of fouling, instead of calling timeout, the Tar Heels let those precious five seconds tick off the clock.

The situation seemed to dumbfound, rather than stimulate.

“I knew we would foul. I’m screaming ‘foul’ … but we didn’t,’’ Williams said. “And the bottom line is, I need to do a better job coaching them, because we need to have some play like that. We need to be able to make a foul.”

They need to be able to execute in tight, clutch situations – like they did last season.

“It’s all learning, and we didn’t claim that we were going to be perfect,’’ Marshall said Saturday. “We knew we had things to work on at the beginning of the season. That doesn’t excuse the loss. I still feel like we had a chance to win the game, it was a very winnable game. But you have to give Kentucky credit – they came up with the plays necessary to win.”

Going forward, UNC needs to, as well.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.