March Madness

One fateful decision summed up North Carolina’s Sweet 16 demise

One fateful decision summed up North Carolina's Sweet 16 demise

LOS ANGELES — The lineup that North Carolina went with late in Thursday night’s Sweet 16 matchup against Alabama included an All-American point guard, the program record holder for double-doubles and two more double-digit scorers.

Somehow, none of them hoisted the most important 3-point attempt of the Tar Heels’ season-ending 89-87 loss in the NCAA tournament.

With North Carolina leading by one and just over a minute to play, forward Jae’Lyn Withers set a top-of-the-key ball screen to try to get point guard R.J. Davis a favorable matchup. Both Alabama defenders trapped Davis in an effort to force the ball out of North Carolina’s best playmaker’s hands.

When Davis whipped the ball back to Withers spotted up just to the left of the top of the key, the 6-foot-9 senior didn’t have a defender anywhere near him. Alabama’s Grant Nelson saw no reason to close out hard on a big man who had attempted 19 threes all season and had sank only four of them.

The temptation was too much for Withers to resist, even with 14 seconds left on the shot clock. Withers’ ill-advised 3-point attempt clanged hard off the back rim, drawing an audible gasp from North Carolina fans, a pained expression from head coach Hubert Davis and a “Why?” from CBS analyst Jim Jackson.

“I work on that shot every day so I don’t think it’s a bad shot,” Withers said. “But with time and score, I could have tried to get to the free throw line or get to the basket and get an easier look for me.”

The Withers miss proved to be a turning point in a fast-paced back-and-forth matchup. Nelson scored a layup and drew a foul on Withers at the other end, giving Alabama a lead that it didn’t relinquish the rest of the game.

North Carolina forward Harrison Ingram said after the game that nobody in the Tar Heels locker room blamed Withers for attempting that 3-pointer. Ingram pointed out that Withers was “wide open” and insisted, “you’ve got to shoot that shot.”

“We want people to be confident,” Ingram said. “If it went in, it would have been a different story. He missed it, but I don’t think that’s the reason we lost. We all missed shots. I missed shots. RJ missed shots.”

Ingram is right, of course, that Withers’ missed 3-pointer isn’t the only reason North Carolina became this NCAA tournament’s first No. 1 seed to lose. Davis shot 4-for-20 from the field and 0-for-9 from behind the arc. Armando Bacot missed a dunk. The Tar Heels collectively had no answer for how to stop Nelson.

Still, Withers was the first to admit his decision to shoot was costly.

“That was probably one of the most crucial plays of the game,” Withers said.

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