GREENSBORO, N.C.--- North Carolina's foray into the 2014 ACC Tournament was much like several other schools who made their way to the Greensboro Coliseum this week, which is to say it was a quick trip.
Fifth-seeded Pittsburgh, who just 24 hours earlier had dominated Wake Forest 84-55 in Thursday's Round of 12, picked up right where they left off Friday afternoon, building a commanding double-digit early lead and held on for dear life down the stretch on its way to an 80-75 win over the Tar Heels, which eliminates North Carolina from this year's event.
It's the first time UNC has been knocked out of its first ACC Tournament game since 2010, when the Tar Heels also failed to reach the NCAA Tournament, and just the third time since Roy Williams became head coach that Carolina didn't reach the ACC Tournament semifinals.
The only other first game departure in the ACC Tournament for UNC other than 2010 was in Williams' first season at North Carolina back in 2004. Friday's loss also snapped a three-year streak dating back to 2011 in which UNC had played in the ACC Tournament championship game each year.
UNC has now gone six years since its last ACC Tournament title, which was won back in 2008.
Carolina made just three of its first 19 shots from the perimeter as they fell behind by double digits 11 minutes into the game.
Pitt went on a 19-2 run midway through the first half to stretch its lead all the way out to 27-9 before J.P. Tokoto got the UNC crowd back into the game a little bit with a running baseline dunk. The Tar Heel sophomore then scored in the paint while getting fouled, completing a run of four straight points that made the score 27-13 and gave Carolina a little hope.
UNC was under 30 percent shooting for much of the opening period before picking it up near the end of the half, and a James Michael McAdoo turn-around jumper at the buzzer pulled the Tar Heels to within ten (36-26) at halftime.
The first few minutes of the second half were a reprisal of the first half, as Lamar Patterson nailed a three-pointer for Pitt, and Talib Zanna grabbed an offensive rebound and put-back to make the score 41-29.
To that point in the game, Pitt enjoyed a 14-2 advantage in second-chance points.
Pitt continued to apply the pressure as Patterson, who might have felt snubbed at not being named first-team All-ACC, buried yet another three-pointer to make the score 48-31 in favor of Pitt with just over 13 minutes to play. Patterson finished with 12 points.
UNC continued its cold shooting over the first 10 minutes of the second half, making just two of its first ten from the floor in the final period. Then the Tar Heels made a bit of a rally, pulling within 14 (52-38) in the final nine minutes, before the Panthers rallied again for five straight points to take a 57-58 lead with under eight minutes left.
UNC senior Leslie McDonald fouled out around this point, having gone scoreless. His noticeable absence from the scoring totals was just one of numerous negative storylines for the Tar Heels from this game.
By the 7:22 mark, following a three-point play, the Panthers held a 20-point lead (61-41), and a restless UNC fanbase started thinking about an early exit.
Those that did leave early missed quite a late comeback by the Tar Heels, though the hole they dug themselves over the first 30-plus minutes was simply too deep.
UNC missed its first ten three-pointers in the game but Marcus Paige finally connected around the seven-minute mark. Then he nailed another one, pulling Carolina within 61-49 at the 6:20 mark. But Pitt continued to persevere, beating Carolina's full-court pressure multiple times and continuing to score.
Perhaps the best example of UNC's plight was a sequence in the final five minutes when the Tar Heels forced a Pitt turnover, but subsequently threw the ball right back to the Panthers on the in-bounds. That single lost possession could have made all the difference after Carolina's impressive late comeback.
UNC continued to fight, pulling within 73-62 after a Brice Johnson basket, and then cutting the Pitt lead to 73-65 after another three-pointer by Paige. But Pitt again answered, keeping its lead at ten before the Tar Heels made one last flurry.
Zanna fouled out at the 1:03 mark with 19 points and 21 rebounds for Pitt, and a pair of UNC free throws made the score 75-71---which was ironically the final score of the two teams' first meeting in Chapel Hill.
UNC had an opportunity to make it a one-possession game a couple times in the final minute, trailing 76-71 after a Pitt free throw, but Paige had the ball stolen near the three-point line and Tokoto was forced to foul, his fifth. Moments later, after Paige had fouled out with 27 points, Britt blew a drive to the hole, and Pitt grabbed the rebound.
Britt actually connected on a long-range jumper to briefly make it 78-75 in the final thirty seconds, but a couple more Pitt free throws sealed the deal.
The Panthers (25-8) will play top-seeded Virginia in Saturday's first semifinal around 1:30 pm, while North Carolina (23-9) waits to see where it will land in the Big Dance.
James Robinson tied Zanna for Pitt game-high scoring honors with 19 points, while Paige led all scorers with 27 points, including 20 in the second half alone. Paige, Brice Johnson (16 points) and McAdoo (15 points) combined to score 58 of UNC's 75 points in the game.
Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about this loss for the Tar Heels is that it makes it much less likely they'll earn a top four seeding and get to play its first two NCAA Tournament games in the friendly confines of Raleigh's PNC Arena in front of a pro-Carolina crowd.
As it stands, UNC is more realistically looking at a seeding in the 5-7 range, and a trip to an out-of-state destination for its NCAA regional matchup.