CHAPEL HILL, NC – Down 2 starters, down by 13 and well on its way to a 7th straight loss, it would have been easy for Miami to mail in the final 3:45 at North Carolina on Monday.

Instead, the shorthanded Hurricanes scrapped their way to an 11-0 run and had the ball with an opportunity to tie or take the lead with less than a minute remaining.

It took a Smith Center record 42-point effort by soon-to-be ACC Player of the Year RJ Davis to hold off the determined comeback.

The 75-71 setback to the league-leading Tar Heels sank Miami even deeper toward the bottom of the standings. It was a sometimes excruciating 20-minute drama that encapsulated the Hurricanes’ struggles and frustration.

Injuries. Adversity. A determined effort that provided a glimmer of hope. Only to be disappointed in the end.

Another loss in a lost season for a team less than a year removed from a Final Four appearance.

“It hasn’t been the best season. It’s been tough,” said junior center Norchad Omier, 1 of the 3 returning starters from that history-making 2023 team. “Injuries, whatever. No excuses. At the end of the day, we’ve got to figure out how to deal with adversity and overcome it.”

That’s something the Hurricanes have yet to do. And the frustration of that reality showed on coach Jim Larrañaga’s face Monday as he addressed the media following his team’s latest loss.

It was a stark contrast to the joy and awkward postgame dance moves that became his trademark during last year’s postseason run.

So what’s gone wrong?

How does a team that started the season picked to finish 2nd in the ACC and ranked as high as No. 8 nationally go from hoping to play on the first Monday in April of the NCAA Tournament to the dreaded first Tuesday session of the ACC Tournament?

The easy answer is injuries.

Pack, the team’s point guard and 2nd-leading scorer, has been battling a knee injury that has had him in and out of the lineup since before Christmas. Wing Wooga Poplar also has missed time and seen his production affected by a recurring ankle issue while forward Matthew Cleveland was sidelined earlier in the season with a hip problem.

The epidemic hasn’t just prevented Larrañaga from putting his best team on the floor. It has also shortened his bench and affected his ability to adjust to different opponents and situations.

Miami played with essentially a 6-man rotation against UNC, with only 1 reserve – Jakai Robinson – playing more than 6 minutes off the bench.

And that’s been the rule, not the exception.

The Hurricanes have been missing at least 1 starter in 11 of their 18 ACC games thus far. They’re 2-9 in them, 0-7 on the road. That compares to a 4-3 mark with a full complement of players.

Injuries, however, are far from the only contributing factor to Miami’s rapid and dramatic decline.

There are also structural deficiencies, most notably a lack of size inside, as well as several more subtle intangible shortcomings. 

For as much as Joe Lunardi has disparaged Isaiah Wong’s selection as ACC Player of the Year in 2023 as the 7th sign of the league’s decline, his presence in the lineup has proven irreplaceable. 

Larrañaga had hoped that the addition of transfer Cleveland, a former ACC Sixth Man of the Year and Florida State’s leading scorer last season, would be the answer to filling the void. But that hasn’t happened.

The Hurricanes have also struggled to find someone capable of assuming the role played by the other departed starter, Jordan Miller.

A versatile 6-7 forward, Miller was the glue guy that helped bind last year’s team together. He’s the kind of player Duke coach Jon Scheyer likes to call “a connector” – someone who is always in the right spot at the right time, able to do whatever is necessary to help the team and is willing to step up and lead when nobody else is.

His “perfect game” in the Elite 8 against Texas, in which he became only the 2nd player in Tournament history to go at least 7-for-7 from the floor and free throw line, is an example of the latter.

The knack for rising to the occasion at just the right time is something that can’t be taught. It’s a trait glaringly absent from the Hurricanes’ current roster.

But that’s not all that’s missing.

As Omier explained after Monday’s game, the Hurricanes haven’t had the same kind of hunger that fueled their Final Four a year ago.

“We had a lot of expectations,” said the junior center, who has done everything in his power to live up to them by averaging 17.1 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. “We went to a Final Four and people thought everything was going to be given to us. A lot of things smacked us. But we just have to keep fighting. We still have an opportunity. So we’ve got to keep getting better and hope for the best.”

Hope is about all they have left.

At 15-14 (6-12 ACC), it’s going to take a miracle run to the ACC Tournament championship for Miami to give itself another chance at extending its season deep into March. That would mean winning 5 games in as many days.

The odds of pulling that off are astronomically longer than rallying from a 13-point deficit in the final 3:45 against North Carolina at the Dean Dome.

But at least the Hurricanes aren’t mailing it in.