CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina’s struggles at the free throw line are proving costly.
The 14th-ranked Tar Heels missed 23 free throws in Wednesday night’s 86-83 loss to Texas, marking the second time this season UNC has missed at least 20 shots from the line in a close home loss.
The Tar Heels made 24 of 47 free throws (51 percent) against the Longhorns, including a 10-for-25 performance in the second half of a game that ended with UNC’s Marcus Paige missing a 3-pointer to tie it at the horn.
UNC missed 26 free throws in an 83-80 loss to Belmont on Nov. 17, and missed 19 in Saturday’s tough win over then-No. 11 Kentucky.
Coach Roy Williams has said several times that his players shoot the ball well in practices, but it isn’t carrying over to games. His patience is wearing thin.
“You have to be tough enough to make shots,” he said. “I’m tired of talking about free throws. You have to be tough enough to step up and make the daggum thing or go play soccer.”
Demarcus Holland scored on a stickback of his own free throw with 4.1 seconds left to help Texas hold on.
Holland finished with 15 points for the Longhorns (10-1), who earned their sixth straight win.
Isaiah Taylor scored 16 points to lead Texas, while Javan Felix added 12 — including two key baskets in the final 2 minutes to answer a tying spurt from the Tar Heels (7-3).
Texas shot 38 percent after halftime and 40 percent for the game, but dominated the boards and scored 21 second-chance points to beat the Tar Heels for the sixth time in seven meetings.
Paige scored 23 points to lead UNC, while senior Leslie McDonald scored 15 in his first game after missing nine due to NCAA eligibility concerns.
North Carolina, which had beaten highly ranked Michigan State, Kentucky and reigning national champion Louisville in the past month despite playing without McDonald and leading scorer P.J. Hairston due to those NCAA issues, trailed by as many as 13 points and spent much of the game fighting uphill.
UNC tied the game at 77 on Kennedy Meeks’ three-point play with 2:14 left, but Felix knocked down a tough shot in the lane over Paige with 1:59 left. Two possessions later, he buried a 3-pointer over Paige to push the lead to 82-77 with 1:06 left.
The Tar Heels clawed within 84-80 on two free throws from Paige with 25.2 seconds left, then Paige followed with a 3 with 12.1 seconds to go to close the deficit to one.
UNC put Holland on the line with 7.2 seconds left and he missed both, but he snatched the rebound in the lane and put up a shot that bounced around the rim before dropping through the net.
Paige got a good look on the final possession from in front of the UNC bench, but the shot rimmed out as the horn expired.
McDonald’s return came after the NCAA announced hours before tipoff that the senior was cleared to return to competition.
The NCAA said McDonald must repay $1,783 to a charity of his choice for receiving improper benefits from “numerous individuals” during this spring and summer. That included the use of luxury cars, payment of parking tickets, a cellphone and lodging.
After the game, UNC issued a statement from athletic director Bubba Cunningham saying the school was still working with the NCAA on Hairston’s status and expected to have the matter resolved by the end of the week.
UNC lost starting center Joel James to a right knee injury on the first play. The extent of the injury is unclear.
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