CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Despite both programs off to underwhelming starts, North Carolina — ranked No. 1 to debut the season — stood as one of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s toughest non-conference tests of the season. In what was essentially a home game for North Carolina — an event hosted by former Tar Heel Michael Jordan’s eponymous brand — the Wolverines had a chance to play the role of The Grinch.
But they let that opportunity slip away, and the holidays came early for UNC and the rowdy Carolina blue-clad Spectrum Center crowd with Michigan (7-4 overall) ultimately falling to the Tar Heels (9-4), 80-76.
“Just putting it together for a full 40 minutes is something that we’ve been working on,” sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin said. “We’ve just got to get over that hump.”
It was the Wolverines’ backcourt that tried to get them over that hump in the first half. The trio of Bufkin, freshman wing Jett Howard and freshman guard Dug McDaniel combined for 26 of Michigan’s 34 first half points.
Those performances helped the Wolverines jump out to an early lead in the highly-physical contest. But what started as highly physical quickly escalated.
At the middle of it all was junior center Hunter Dickinson who stood over UNC’s Caleb Love after a foul. He exchanged words with the guard before the interaction devolved into a scuffle between the two teams. Class-A technical fouls were issued to Michigan’s Dickinson and McDaniel, as well as UNC’s Love and forward Armando Bacot.
“It was just two teams trying to win,” Bacot said. “When you’ve got two people trying to win, stuff like that happens.”
That conflict marked a change in momentum, as Dickinson and McDaniel went to the bench for the remainder of the half in foul trouble soon after. The Tar Heels took advantage of the situation, turning what was a four-point Wolverine lead at the time of the scrimmish into a 41-34 lead for UNC entering the break.
Coming out of the intermission, tempers cooled. Michigan kept up with the Tar Heels offensively, but struggled on the defensive side of the ball. Every time a Wolverine run sparked, Bacot — who finished with a game-high 26 points — or another UNC player stomped it out with a bucket of their own.
The Wolverines struggled to contain Bacot all night, but when he went to the bench after picking up his fourth foul with 6:47 left to play, Michigan had a chance to erase the Tar Heel lead completely.
And the Wolverines came close after a 3-pointer from graduate guard Joey Baker in transition with 3:37 left cut the UNC lead to just three points, capturing the momentum that had eluded Michigan all half while forcing a Tar Heel timeout.
But Bacot checked back in out of the timeout, bringing the UNC offense with him. Two possessions into his return, Bacot finished through contact to protect the Tar Heel lead.
“This game is decided by a few possessions,” Howard said. “Those possessions mean a lot.”
Junior forward Terrance Williams II responded with a triple, and the Wolverines suddenly found themselves within two. But that was the closest they got. Michigan continued to score down the stretch, but failed to stifle the Tar Heel offense in the game’s most important moments.
After Williams’ 3-pointer, UNC scored in its last five possessions of the game. Despite the Wolverines scoring down the stretch, they simply couldn’t find that crucial stop.
“That’s probably the most frustrating part about it,” Howard said. “We feel like we’re better than a lot of these teams. We put in a lot of effort and a lot of time, and it’s the same result. So, you can understand why we’d be frustrated.”
Michigan once again couldn’t close it out after playing up to the caliber of a quality opponent. And as the final buzzer sounded, the already raucous sea of Carolina-blue erupted in the stands. The Wolverines knocked on the door, but failed to keep the Tar Heels’ scorers off the board down the stretch.
And they couldn’t steal UNC’s night tonight.