R.L. Bynum, Correspondent
KANSAS CITY, MO. — Perimeter problems that have lingered for North Carolina all season sank their NCAA tournament hopes.
The Tar Heels (29-7) have been able to overcome some teams in games when they couldn’t hit from 3-point range with good inside play, but Friday night against Auburn wasn’t one of them.
The Tigers became the 17th UNC opponent with double-digit 3-pointers this season.
Those issues collided and knocked the No.1-seed Tar Heels out of NCAA tournament as the No. 5-seed Tigers made 12 of 18 3-point attempts in the second half on their way to a 97-80 victory in the Midwest regional semifinals.
The two highest 3-pointer totals by opponents this season came in the tournament, with 15 by Iona in the first round and 17 by Auburn.
The 17 were the most against UNC in the NCAA tournament in program history and the most against a Roy Williams UNC team.
“You have to give them credit, they pushed the pace very hard, come right up your backs,” Williams said.
“They penetrate and trying to make a decision whether to help or stay attached to the 3-point shooter and they can back you off with the quickness and shoot it. But they still had to make them, so you have to give them credit for that.”
That Auburn got so much perimeter production wasn’t a surprise, given that 58% of its shots had been coming from 3-point range.
Worn down, not feeling it
As they kept draining them, it was more draining for a Tar Heels team already sick.
“I just feel like a lot of our shots that we normally make didn’t fall and a lot of their shots that they normally take fell,” said point guard Coby White, who missed all seven 3-point attempts and finished with 15 points.
Nassir Little had been dealing with flu-like symptoms and said he was playing at about 50% strength.
Cameron Johnson, even though he scored 15 points, clearly wasn’t on his game and was throwing up instead of talking to reporters after the game.
Both had temperatures of more than 100 on Thursday.
“They did everything they could and built up enough strength to get on the court tonight,” said Kenny Williams, who scored 10 points in his final game as a Tar Heel.
“But, you know, things that you have to deal with. Injuries are part of the game, so you can’t really do anything about it.”
That was out of Carolina’s control, as was the ability to keep Auburn from sinking 3-pointers.
“It was demoralizing, man,” Little said. “We tried harder defensively, but they were just better offensively tonight.
After the Tigers only made five 3s in the first half, they barely missed in the second half, even banking in a couple of them.
The 64.3% second-half shooting by Auburn was the highest in a half by a UNC opponent all season (previous high was 62.5% in the second half by Texas.)
“Basketball is one of those games, man,” Little said.
“I’ve been on both sides of it. We’ve had games this year where just about everything is going in. And then there are these kinds of games where you’re on the other end of that. They banked in some 3s, made some mid-range shots. Got some tough layups to go in. That’s just way the ball bounced tonight.”
Brandon Robinson, who, along with Kenny Williams and Johnson made a pair of 3-pointers, said Auburn’s success penetrating and kicking it out for 3-pointers instead of shots inside wore on the Tar Heels.
“It’s very difficult, and I feel, for their team, they build their momentum off that, too,” Robinson said.
“As soon as we go down and score, we think we’re getting it back up and they go down there and hit a big-time shot, so it was just a lot of emotions going through that game. They played a heck of a game.”
Capable, but not enough
UNC finished the season with a school-record 312 3-pointers, but the Tar Heels needed far more than the seven they made against Auburn.
“I felt like the second half, we came out, didn’t play our principles,” said Luke Maye, who collected 13 points and 7 rebounds to finish his career with 1,392 points and 942 rebounds.
“They hit some shots, and we kind of tried to get it back on one play. It didn’t go in our favor, and it felt like we didn’t play to our strengths at the end and we forced some shots.”
Just wasn’t the same
Before Little got sick, he had played his best basketball of the season in the first two rounds.
He just wasn’t himself, finishing with four points and having his shot rejected a couple of times.
He admitted that the lift on his jump wasn’t the same.
“Not really. I think my bad lift is some other people’s good lift,” Little said.
“I just wanted to win. I just wish I could have done more for the team. I got sick, but that’s life. I tried, tried to put in on the line for the team and it just didn’t go our way.”
The pain of losing is real
Johnson and Little will eventually recover from their sickness.
But that sick feeling left from Auburn’s dominating effort will stick with them for a long time.
“We’re all sad,” Robinson said.
“We all wanted to win. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. It’s the last time us being with the seniors. It really hasn’t hit me yet that it’s over. We didn’t have the ending we wanted to, and it sucks.”
As the hurt from the loss lingers, it figures to be a tough offseason for Tar Heels fans.
They already are losing Johnson, Maye and Kenny Williams and figure to also lose Little and White, although Little suggested that he hasn’t made his decision.
Triangle Sports Network: 401-323-8960, @TSportsNet