After it happened, there was no time to think about it, no real time to reflect. North Carolina didn’t take its 74-73 loss against Duke in stride – not exactly, given the somberness afterward – but the Tar Heels attempted to forget and move on as quickly as possible.
But now has come a time to remember what happened at the Smith Center on Feb. 17, when UNC led by eight points with less than seven minutes to play before losing in stunning style. That night, the Tar Heels had no answers during the final minutes.
They faltered defensively, allowing Duke’s Brandon Ingram and Grayson Allen to mostly do what they pleased. UNC failed offensively, and was unable to find Brice Johnson, the senior forward, on the interior. And then there was a mess of a final offensive possession.
It ended with the Tar Heels looking confused, and with Joel Berry, the sophomore guard, hoisting a shot that was partially blocked. Then the final horn sounded, leaving UNC, which had three timeouts remaining, to contemplate how it lost in inexplicable fashion to its most impassioned rival.
The Tar Heels quickly discarded those thoughts. But they’re back this week, as they approach the regular-season finale at Duke on Saturday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It’s a game that means something in part because Duke-UNC games always mean something.
With a victory, UNC can clinch the top seed in the ACC tournament, and at least a share of the ACC’s regular season championship – no small feat for a group of seniors, Johnson included, that has been yearning to win something significant this season.
There’s something else, too, that will add to the meaning for UNC: how things ended the last time these teams played. It’s that feeling the Tar Heels were left with in the moments after that game, when some UNC players sobbed in the locker room afterward.
“You always get ticked off when you feel like you let one slip by,” UNC coach Roy Williams said on Friday.
Johnson described it another way. He and his teammates have at times been haunted by what happened two and a half weeks ago at the Smith Center.
“It definitely bugs us from time to time,” Johnson said. “Just because of the way they kind of did the same thing over and over again and they ended up either getting a foul or they got a bucket at the end of the game.”
And so now comes the Tar Heels’ chance for redemption. After they played Duke the first time, Williams showed his team only two plays from the game during a film review session.
One of those was the game’s final play, which Williams has said the Tar Heels failed to execute. The idea on that one was to set a screen for Marcus Paige, the senior guard, who was supposed to be open for a potential game-winning shot.
The other play Williams showed provided an example of a lack of hustle and awareness, as Duke’s Marshall Plumlee ran down the lane and beat several Tar Heels for an offensive rebound.
“Intelligence,” Williams said on Friday when asked the significance of those two plays. “That’s all it was. You’ve just got to use your brain a little bit.”
UNC’s overall failures in that first meeting, beyond those two plays have been fresher on the Tar Heels’ minds this week. They have come up in conversations among teammates, and have been a topic of discussion inside the UNC locker room.
They couldn’t have been earlier, not with an important game that loomed against Miami, followed by one at N.C. State, followed by one at Virginia and then the regular-season home finale, senior night, against Syracuse on Monday night.
“Now that we’ve had a week to prepare after the Syracuse game, that’s definitely come back up,” Paige said of the first game against Duke. “We’ve seen it on film. We’ve talked about it. We’ve emphasized things in practice.
“So it’s been a point of discussion and in the locker room and now we just realize there’s nothing we can do about the home Carolina-Duke game. That’s in the past. Can’t go back and change it. We can’t go get Marshall Plumlee his fifth foul or anything like that.
“But we can change a lot about how we play (Saturday). So that’s what we’ve been thinking about.”
A victory on Saturday could help UNC generate some momentum, or at least some increased confidence, entering the postseason. The Tar Heels were often inconsistent in February, following strong performances with mediocre ones, or mediocre ones with impressive ones.
Williams on Friday downplayed the idea of a team “peaking” entering the postseason.
“If somebody says they can figure out (how) to make their teams peak, they can go ahead and say it but I don’t believe that stuff,” he said.
The Tar Heels, though, still remain a work in progress – a team that believes it’s best is yet to come. A victory at Duke could go a ways toward supporting that thought.
“I think we’re getting there as a team,” Paige said, “and I think (Saturday) will say a lot about how far we’ve come this season. And if we play great then it will be lke a turning point, and I expect us to play great.”