UNC Now: Tar Heel loss to Blue Devils full of what-ifs

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 9, 2014 

— In the quiet that followed North Carolina’s first defeat in 47 days, Marcus Paige thought of missed opportunities and late-game what-ifs that might haunt the Tar Heels in the coming days.

UNC suffered a 93-81 loss at Duke on Saturday night, yet in so many ways it was closer than the final 12-point margin. And yet in so many ways it wasn’t.

It was that kind of game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. A play here, one there, and UNC might have had chance late. Paige, the sophomore guard, finished with 24 points – 18 in the second half – but it was the three points he didn’t score that represented the greatest what-if in UNC’s defeat, which had its 12-game winning streak snapped.

UNC trailed by 12 with a little less than three minutes to play when Paige made a long 3-pointer while absorbing contact from Tyler Thornton, the Duke guard. Fouled on the play, Paige made the free throw to cut Duke’s lead to eight.

Then James Michael McAdoo, the Tar Heels’ junior forward, came up with a steal near midcourt. Paige found himself with the ball again, and again attempted a 3-pointer. It rattled off the rim, up high, and sophomore forward Brice Johnson raced through the lane and grazed the ball just before it fell through the rim.

The whistle blew. Offensive interference. Wipe away the basket. Had it counted as a 3, UNC would have trailed by five points with 2 minutes, 41 seconds to play.

Defeat might have been easier for UNC to stomach had that been the Tar Heels’ only late miscue, their only blown chance. It wasn’t, though. Paige counted them down afterward.

“We could have cut it to five with the 3,” Paige said. “We get offensive interference. We get one steal, don’t finish at the rim. We get another steal, don’t finish at the rim. We just kind of rushed the plays. So both of those could have turned into easy baskets, and then you’re talking about a one possession, two possession game.

“And then that’s when they’d start getting on their heels.”

Paige paused for a moment before changing his thought.

“At the end of the day, we didn’t guard well enough to win this game,” he said.

The Tar Heels shot nearly 60 percent yet lost by double-digits. Those numbers told the story of UNC’s defensive struggles. The 91 points it allowed represented a season-high. And the Tar Heels’ field goal percentage – 59.6 percent – was their highest in a loss since they shot 64.2 percent in a loss at Duke in March of 1986.

UNC has prided itself on defense and on rebounding, but it didn’t bring those things to Durham. The Tar Heels finished with 20 rebounds – their fewest since they lost against N.C. State in the 1987 ACC tournament championship.

“Of course, they’re going to have a lot of long rebounds,” said McAdoo, who finished with 13 points. “They shoot a lot of 3s. But at the end of the day, I think it just came down to our want-to versus their want-to, and it just wasn’t there. The sense of urgency.”

McAdoo played just 24 minutes due to foul trouble, and he sat on the bench for about eight minutes after picking up his fourth foul less than a minute into the second half. While on the bench, McAdoo had a good view of Jabari Parker, the Duke freshman forward who finished with a season-high 30 points.

McAdoo’s prolonged absence hurt the Tar Heels’ rebounding, and it hurt their ability to guard Parker, too.

“It sucks,” McAdoo said of his helpless feeling from the bench, watching Parker do what he did. “That’s just all I can really say. It just sucks.”

There was a different feeling in the UNC locker room, though, than there was after its most recent loss before Saturday night. The Tar Heels’ defeat at Virginia on Jan. 20 gave them a 1-4 record in the ACC, and UNC then was searching for direction and confidence it found in a 12-game winning streak.

“That feeling is not going through this locker room,” Paige said. “We know we still have a chance to make some noise later on, and this isn’t going to change that. We’re a good team. We think we could have won tonight – should have won tonight, if we would have played better.”

In the end, though, that’s what UNC was left with at Duke – could haves and should haves and, for the first time in a while, a loss.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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