North Carolina’s effort to bolster its NCAA Tournament resume by picking up February nonconference games backfired on Wednesday night when the Tar Heels dropped an 83-70 decision to a Marquette team that it added to the schedule just four days ago. The loss is the first Quad 3 defeat of the season for the Tar Heels, who entered the night as one of the “Last 4 in,” according to the latest Bracketology from CBS Sports expert Jerry Palm.
North Carolina (14-8) will likely need a strong finish in its final three scheduled regular season games against Florida State, Syracuse and Duke in order to compete for an at-large bid to the Big Dance after adding what qualifies as its worst loss of the season to date. This was the second nonconference game added by the Tar Heels, who won a Quad 3 game against Northeastern last Wednesday that they found after soliciting opponents via Twitter.
North Carolina’s freshman class, ranked No. 2 nationally by 247Sports, has been improving as of late, but the top freshman on the court Wednesday was Marquette’s Dawson Garcia. The 6-foot-11 forward scored 16 of his game-high 24 points in the first half as the Golden Eagles opened up a 45-29 halftime lead. North Carolina pulled within eight points in the second half but struggled to break through as the Golden Eagles (11-12) forced 19 turnovers and held UNC to 5-of-18 3-point shooting.
The loss also denied UNC coach Roy Williams his 900th career victory and may have been particularly significant for Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski, a former Duke point guard who never won a road game against the Tar Heels during his playing career. Marquette’s only hope of making the NCAA Tournament would likely be winning the Big East Tournament, but their leading scorers are Garcia and sophomore D.J. Carton, who looked like solid building blocks for the future on Wednesday. Carton contributed 17 points for Marquette.
The game did bring at least one bright spot for the Tar Heels, though, as freshman center Walker Kessler registered his third straight outing with 10 points. Kessler had gone all season without reaching double figures until his role began to increase in last week’s win over Northeastern. UNC was led in the loss by Garrison Brooks’ 18 points.