There have been some wild postgame scenes in the North Carolina locker room this season – ones of jubilation and joy after memorable victories made sweeter because of some bitter circumstances.
There was only quiet, though, in the locker room after the Tar Heels’ 93-81 defeat Saturday night at Duke. This was something UNC hadn’t had to deal with in a while – a loss – but the feeling was different than it was late on the night of Jan. 20, when the Tar Heels lost at Virginia.
Before Saturday night, it had been that long since UNC had been beaten. Between defeats, the Tar Heels won 12 games and saved a season that could have gone in a different direction after their 1-4 start in the ACC – the worst in school history.
“It has been a hard time for me for several months, but boy, those kids have been fun,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “When it was 0-3 and when it was 1-4, they still came to practice and tried to get better every day, and they bought in even more so you appreciate that.
“It’s hard to think about that right now – we just got our tails kicked. But they’ve saved ol’ Roy, because it’s been a tough time period.”
The past couple of weeks have been difficult, too, but for different reasons. UNC seemed to have found itself – and found a formula that led to consistent performances – during the first nine games of its 12-game winning streak.
In the four games that have followed a 33-point victory against Wake Forest, though, the Tar Heels haven’t been as sharp, as focused, as they were through much of late January and February. Even without its best, UNC was good enough to defeat N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame – three games the Tar Heels won by seven points.
Against Duke, though, UNC’s good fortune – its ability to overcome its own sluggishness – ran out. The Tar Heels have won with defense and rebounding this season, but they lacked those things Saturday night.
UNC’s 20 rebounds were its fewest since its loss in the 1987 ACC tournament final against N.C. State. The Tar Heels set another mark Saturday: They shot 59.6 percent from the field – their best shooting percentage in a loss since a March 1986 defeat at Duke.
That UNC shot so well and still lost by double figures illustrates its deficiencies in other areas – namely rebounding and defense. In the locker room, the Tar Heels spoke of the need to rediscover their urgency and hustle, which carried them through that winning streak.
Junior forward James Michael McAdoo said Duke had “more want-to” than UNC. In another corner of the small, cramped visiting locker room at Cameron Indoor Stadium, sophomore guard Marcus Paige spoke of missed opportunities, and how maybe a defeat wouldn’t be the worst thing if it helps the Tar Heels in the long run.
“Most people say (the winning streak) has to come to an end at some point,” said Paige, who led UNC with 24 points. “This might be good and help us refocus. It’s hard to realize you’re starting to slip in your level of play when you’re winning. So maybe this will wake us up and show us that the last three or four games, our effort level and our execution has gone down a little bit.”
After UNC’s victory against Duke in Chapel Hill on Feb. 20, Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said his team didn’t have “it” – whatever that impossible-to-define characteristic is. Williams borrowed that line Saturday night to describe the Tar Heels.
“It’s hard to say what ‘it’ is, but whatever the hell it is, Jabari found it,” Williams said of Duke freshman forward Jabari Parker, who scored a season-high 30 points. “We got off to a bad start in the first half and a bad start in the second half.”
Duke led 17-4 with 13 minutes to play in the first half, but the Tar Heels came back and trailed by three at halftime. At the start of the second half, the Blue Devils needed less than five minutes to stretch their lead back into double digits, and the lead grew to as large as 19 points with 81/2 minutes to play.
UNC attempted to rally in the final minutes, and had Paige’s 3-pointer counted with about 21/2 minutes to play – Brice Johnson’s interference wiped it away – it would have been a five-point game. The Tar Heels had other opportunities to make it interesting late but, Paige said, “We didn’t guard well enough to win this game.”
The 93 points were the most UNC had given up this season. The Tar Heels aren’t close to being among Williams’ most dynamic offensive teams, but they shot nearly 60 percent and scored in the 80s.
Those numbers are usually good enough to translate into a victory.
“Yeah, you would think so,” McAdoo said.
He spent large chunks of the game on the bench in foul trouble and played 24 minutes. That was one thing that hurt the Tar Heels his absence for long stretches.
Williams has said it before, and he said it again after the loss at Duke: UNC needs Paige and McAdoo to play “really, really well.”
“We operate on a thin line,” Williams said.
The Tar Heels also need to play with maximum “want-to,” as McAdoo described it, and “urgency,” as Williams has said over and over. UNC lacked those intangibles and lost for the first time in 47 days.
“They just came out and wanted it more,” Paige said.