With his team needing to make one shot to take the lead against Duke in the final seconds on Wednesday night at the Smith Center, North Carolina coach Roy Williams relied on his instincts, on his past and on a philosophy he adopted from Dean Smith.
“I’m not blaming it on coach Smith by any means,” Williams said after the Tar Heels’ 74-73 defeat. “It’s my call.”
He was talking about his decision not to call a timeout in the final seconds of a loss that may well haunt him and his players. Four times on Wednesday night the Tar Heels led by seven points in the second half. Once, with a little less than seven minutes to play, they led by eight.
So many times it appeared that UNC was on the verge of pulling away and putting the game a little bit more out of reach. And yet it couldn’t.
“They hit some big shots that would take a seven-point lead and make it a four-point lead,” Marcus Paige, UNC’s senior guard, said afterward. “So we could never really get over the hump and get that double-digit cushion.”
Then it came down to this: the Tar Heels needing to make one shot with the final seconds ticking away. After Brice Johnson, the senior forward, rebounded a Duke miss with 20 seconds remaining, Joel Berry dribbled up the court.
Berry appeared hesitant and looked to the UNC sideline. Williams motioned him to run the offense. He had three timeouts and could have called one – or two – to calm his team and diagram a play. A timeout never came, though.
“I think you should always attack before the defense gets set,” Williams said, repeating the strategy he’d learned from Smith. “It’s what I’ve always believed, it’s what I was taught. It’s the way I’ve always played.”
On this night, though, and in this situation, Williams’ team appeared frazzled. Duke set its defense with little trouble while the Tar Heels appeared confused.
Then panic began to set in. Justin Jackson, who’d taken a pass from Berry, attempted to penetrate but found no room. He then passed back to Berry, who dribbled inside the 3-point arc and then attempted a shot that didn’t hit the rim.
There was no offensive rebound. The final seconds ticked away and Duke celebrated. When he met with his team inside of a despondent locker room, though, Williams apologized.
“I told the kids I should have called a timeout,” he said. “We didn’t get as good a shot as I thought we would get. It’s just what I’ve always believed in and even though I said it’s my fault, if we had to do it tomorrow night I’d probably do the same thing, because I just think that’s the best way to play.”
It was something of a confusing message to send: an apology followed by an insistence on doing the same thing over again if given another chance. The timeout that never came is likely to enter the lore of the UNC-Duke rivalry, and the ending will likely the endure, too.
So will the other question that defined UNC’s loss on Wednesday night: What happened to Johnson, the Tar Heels’ 6-foot-10 forward, during the final 12 minutes?
Johnson finished with 29 points and 17 rebounds. He made 13 of his 17 attempts from the field. For long stretches he was the best, most productive player in the game for either team.
And during the final 12 minutes, and in the game’s decisive moments, he went missing. During the final 12 minutes Johnson attempted one shot from the field – a dunk that he made with a little less than five minutes remaining.
His teammates, meanwhile, attempted 20 shots from the field during the same span. Johnson, despite his dominance during the first 28 minutes, despite finishing the first half with a double-double (19 points and 11 rebounds), attempted one of UNC’s final 21 shots from the field.
His invisibility during the final 12 minutes was even more unfathomable given that Marshall Plumlee, Duke’s only traditional post player, picked up his fourth foul with 14 minutes remaining. Johnson rarely had an opportunity to go on the offensive to try to draw Plumlee’s fifth foul.
Williams didn’t offer a detailed explanation of UNC’s failure to provide Johnson with chances.
“They did a better job defensively and we didn’t do a very good job of moving the ball and getting it to him,” Williams said. “We sort of slowed down there. We sort of dribbled the ball so much instead of attacking. We tried to run a play to get the ball inside but their defense, again, outplayed our offense.”
Johnson, meanwhile, simply said, “I just didn’t get (the ball)” in the final 10 minutes.
“They didn’t want us to score,” he said. “And so we didn’t score.”
The bulk of Johnson’s production came off of second-chance opportunities after offensive rebounds. He also excelled in transition during the first half.
When the Tar Heels ran their normal halfcourt offense, though, they had difficulty finding Johnson on the interior. Especially during the final 12 minutes.
While Johnson took but one shot during that span, UNC guards Marcus Paige and Joel Berry combined to attempt 12 shots from the field. They made only one of those. Paige committed a costly late turnover, too, that Duke capitalized on.
“We weren’t real sharp down the stretch,” said Paige, who missed all six of his 3-point attempts. “I can’t turn the ball over. My teammates rely on me too much to take care of the ball and be a good player, and I turned the ball over. And it kind of cost us. So I’ll take some responsibility for that.”
There was blame to go around for UNC on Wednesday night. A lot of it appeared to rest with Williams.
His decision not to call a timeout in the game’s most critical moment will continue to be scrutinized. And questions surrounding Johnson’s role and usage – he scored 27 points during the first 28 minutes and two points after that – will continue to linger, too, in the aftermath of a confounding defeat.