DURHAM — The urgency and intensity that North Carolina coach Roy Williams has waited to see all season was there for the Tar Heels here on Wednesday night. The execution wasnt, though.
Not all the time, at least. And especially not during the second half of Dukes 73-68 victory against UNC at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
After one of its least inspired performances of the season, which came on Saturday in a 26-point loss at Miami, the Tar Heels responded with one of the most inspired games. Williams had joked earlier this week that hed send his players to the morgue if they werent energized on Wednesday night.
And they were.
The intensity tonight was better than weve had all year long, Williams said.
But for the second time in two and a half weeks, Williams was left to dismiss the consolation of a moral victory. He wasnt all that pleased with UNCs spirited comeback in an 8-point loss at N.C. State on Jan. 29.
And the defeat here on Wednesday left Williams sullen and somber. For a while, though, the Tar Heels execution matched their energy. The Heels led by as many 10 points during the first half, and led 33-29 at halftime.
During the first 20 minutes, UNC used a small lineup with success. Williams inserted P.J. Hairston into the starting lineup for the second time this season, and Hairstons presence made UNC quicker and more difficult to guard.
The Tar Heels, who started four guards, wanted to guard the perimeter and limit the Blue Devils 3-point opportunities. In turn, UNC was content to guard Mason Plumlee, the Duke forward, one-on-one.
We wanted to let James Michael (McAdoo) play Mason one-on-one, Marcus Paige, the UNC freshman point guard, said. Because hes a good passer out of the post. We decided to make him beat us, rather than let them get going from 3. For the majority of the game, we did that perfectly.
We helped down when we could, but we stayed home with shooters.
The strategy worked for a while. But sure enough, Paige said, We know that they were going to start shooting 3s and make a run.
Which is what happened. Seth Curry gave Duke its first lead with a long 3-pointer from the right side with about 14 minutes to play. Moments later, Rasheed Sulaimon and Tyler Thornton made 3s on back-to-back possessions to put Duke ahead for good.
By then, Cameron was rocking, and the Heels, whod played with so poise during the first half, appeared rattled. They went five minutes in the second half without scoring a point. Five of Duke's six 3-pointers came in the second half.
We just didnt contain the ball as well through that little stretch, Paige said. I know one was a long rebound and Curry got a good look, and then another one, they drove and the defense collapsed. We talked about not collapsing, making them finish at the rim.
But we had a defensive breakdown, collapsed, Thornton hits a 3.
The Tar Heels kept it close down the stretch but, as Williams described it, never got over the hump. It didnt help that UNC made 13 of its 23 free throws, or that Reggie Bullock and James Michael McAdoo combined to make just two of their nine free throw attempts.
Bullock, who was 1-for-4 from the line, had difficulty explaining his struggles there.
We just missed them, he said. When I was at the free throw line, I was just thinking about me being in the gym, by myself, just trying to connect and make them. But unfortunately they didnt go in.
Still, there were positives for UNC. Unlike on Saturday at Miami, which took an early 9-0 lead on UNC, the Tar Heels started well on Wednesday night. Hairstons presence seemed to spark the Heels early.
And for once, UNC played with the kind of heart and desire that Williams has been demanding.
Were mad we lost the game, Hairston said. But were not mad at our effort.