Roy Williams walked into the North Carolina locker room and apologized to his players, some of whom had been bent over and sobbing moments after the Tar Heels' stunning 74-73 defeat against Duke on Wednesday night.
It was an improbable defeat given the circumstances – given UNC's advantage in depth and given that Duke for most of the night at the Smith Center played on without Matt Jones, one of its starters, and played in the second half through perilous foul trouble.
And yet the defeat wasn't all that improbable, either, because it had happened before, in a way. The Tar Heels had lost like this, after failing to hold second-half leads. They had lost amid late failures in tense moments, lost when they couldn't make a key shot or come up with a key defensive stop.
And wasn't that how it happened, again, on Wednesday night at the Smith Center. The Tar Heels led by eight, 68-60, with a little less than seven minutes remaining. Then the lead kept dwindling – down to six points, and four, down to two and then one.
And then there was no UNC lead at all after Luke Kennard, the Duke freshman whose role expanded amid Jones' injury, made a 3-pointer with less than three minutes remaining. That put the Blue Devils ahead 72-71 and cast an ominous silence over the crowd here.
It had been so raucous, so energized just minutes earlier when it appeared that UNC was one shot away, or one defensive stop away, from seizing control and putting the scrappy Blue Devils out of their misery. What happened then, during those final seven minutes.
UNC players, after collecting themselves, after hearing their coach apologize to them, met with reporters and tried to put it into words. Brice Johnson, the Tar Heels' senior forward who finished with 29 points and 19 rebounds, pursed his lips and shook his head while he spoke.
“All of a sudden they decided to clamp down and didn't want us to score and then Brandon (Ingram) and Grayson (Allen) were just attacking, and Grayson got the line quite a few times and Brandon hit a couple shots,” Johnson said. “So that's probably the biggest difference.”
That, and UNC's inability to do much of anything offensively. Marcus Paige, Johnson's classmate and longtime close friend, sat on another end of the Tar Heels' players lounge and tried to do his part to explain the breakdowns during the final seven minutes, after UNC took that eight-point lead.
“They made some shots,” Paige said. “I just said that Brandon Ingram made some really tough shots. We didn't get the ball where we needed it to go, and we missed some easy ones – had some turnovers. That's – yeah.”
Ingram finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds, and Allen with 23 points for Duke. In the game's critical moments they willed the Blue Devils to victory.
Defensively, meanwhile, Duke forced UNC into several sloppy possessions. Did Duke change anything defensively during that closing stretch? Had the Blue Devils adjusted in a way that made it more difficult to get the ball inside to Johnson, who'd had so much success?
“No,” Paige said.
He said, too, that he and his teammates didn't need or want an apology for Williams. And yet the Tar Heels received one, anyway.
Williams, himself teary-eyed afterward, said he told his players, “I'm sorry.”
And he was sorry for not calling a timeout in the final seconds, after Johnson rebounded a missed shot with 20 seconds remaining. Johnson quickly passed ahead to Joel Berry, UNC's sophomore point guard, and Berry dribbled into the front court.
He appeared hesitant, though, and quickly looked to the sideline, to Williams. There was no motion for time. The plan was to keep the play going, and to capitalize before Duke had an opportunity to set its defense. It's a tactic that has served Williams well at times, and one he learned from Dean Smith.
"I think you should always attack before the defense gets set,” Williams said of the final play. And then came his admission: “I told the kids I should have called a timeout.”
Berry dribbled around apprehensively before forcing a shot with four seconds to play. It was off and there was no offensive rebound and putback attempt and time ran out and Duke celebrated a victory that left the Smith Center crowd shocked and silent, many with their hands on their head.
Some appeared at a loss for any emotion and they stared blankly ahead. UNC's players walked off the court and some of them collapsed. Among them there was a sense afterward of: “how did that just happen?”
“It hurts,” Johnson said. “A lot."