North Carolina has had two full days to contemplate all that happened on Wednesday night against Duke during a 74-73 defeat that left some UNC players sobbing on the way from the Smith Center court to their locker room.
It has been a long enough time to absorb the breakdowns and the failures that led to that loss. But not such a long time that the pain of defeat is gone.
That will likely linger for a while but the Tar Heels have no time to dwell. Not when they’ll be back in the Smith Center Saturday against Miami, which is tied with UNC for first place in the ACC. In the context of the ACC standings, at least, this game is as important as the one it played Wednesday.
Which means it’ll be especially important for the No. 5 Tar Heels to put the game against the Blue Devils in the past. Duke already beat UNC once this week. If UNC (21-5, 10-3 ACC) plays against No. 11 Miami (21-4, 10-3) with an emotional hangover – if it’s slow to get going early on – it’d represent something of another loss against the Blue Devils.
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And yet it’s a fair question for the Tar Heels, and one they now face: How do they move on after that Duke loss, when they led by eight points with less than seven minutes to play only to score five points the rest of the way in defeat? How does UNC grow from the experience?
“We’ll find out Saturday,” Marcus Paige, the UNC senior guard, said. “It’s the biggest game of the year for us. I’m pretty sure Miami is second or third in the league, and we’re still up there. So we can’t sit around and think about this (loss against Duke) too much because one of the best teams in the ACC is coming to our house on Saturday.”
It was an important message but, nonetheless, Paige appeared shaken after the loss to Duke, speaking solemnly and slowly.
So, too, did Brice Johnson, the senior forward. UNC coach Roy Williams, meanwhile, spoke during his postgame press conference with tears in his eyes. He apologized in the locker room after his decision not to call a timeout in the final seconds.
“Didn’t need to hear it,” Paige said of Williams’ apology. “Didn’t want to hear it. But that’s just the competitor that coach is.
“He’s going to try to find ways that he can help us better, and we’ve got to do the same thing.”
Williams trusted his players to execute the offense in the final moments against Duke. He didn’t call a timeout to instruct his team to run a set play.
The result was a mess of a possession in which the Tar Heels seemed out of sync from the start. It ended with Joel Berry, the sophomore point guard, forcing a shot near the free-throw line.
It was partially blocked, there was no offensive rebound, no second-chance opportunity, and Duke celebrated an improbable victory, given the circumstances.
The Blue Devils were down to essentially a five-man rotation. And senior forward Marshall Plumlee, Duke’s only traditional post player, played the final 11 minutes after picking up his fourth foul with 14 minutes remaining.
For UNC the circumstances all culminated to form a question that will linger: How exactly did the Tar Heels manage to lose?
“It’s a wonderful rivalry to be involved in,” Williams said, “But I’m being tired of just (being) involved. We’ve got to play better.”
His team’s first opportunity to do so comes Saturday against Miami. It so happens to be amid some high stakes, in a game in which the winner will find itself alone in first place in the ACC.