For the fifth time in the past five weeks North Carolina coach Roy Williams and his players were left to explain how everything fell apart for a time in the second half of a loss, how a game that had once looked promising, the Tar Heels hopeful of a victory, went bad.
This time it was late Saturday night after an 84-77 loss against Duke – a loss that in some ways wasn't too different from losses at Louisville and at home against Virginia and N.C. State and against Duke, again, the first time the teams played two and a half weeks ago.
This defeat was different from those, and those defeats were different from one another, but they all carried the same theme and shared similar elements: turnovers, poor shot selection and a general lack of poise and composure.
This wasn't exactly the kind of loss the Tar Heels endured at Louisville, where they surrendered an 18-point lead with 18 minutes to play in regulation before losing in overtime. That, UNC guard Marcus Paige said on Saturday, had been “a meltdown.”
And this wasn't like the first loss against Duke on Feb. 18 in Durham, where the Blue Devils trailed by 10 with four minutes to play only to force overtime, where they won it. But in some ways this was like those two defeats and others in which UNC simply faded when it most needed to be strong.
“This game was more of Duke kind of grinding their way into it with their defense,” Paige said, “and us turning the ball over.”
There was a lot of that. The Tar Heels led by seven points twice early on during the second half.
Duke whittled the lead to one the first time UNC built that lead and then, after Paige made a 3-pointer to give the Tar Heels another seven-point lead with 14 minutes, 40 seconds to play, the Blue Devils responded with a 14-2 run that changed the game.
It lasted a little more than three minutes, that Duke run, and a couple of UNC turnovers during that span portended what was to come. Initially, the Tar Heels responded well enough from that Duke run. Three times, they cut the Blue Devils' lead to a single point. But then Duke's Tyus Jones made a 3 after a Justin Jackson turnover and, moments later, Quinn Cook made another 3 after a J.P. Tokoto turnover – one of three UNC turnovers in a span of less than three minutes.
Suddenly Duke led 68-59 with about six minutes to play, and UNC never again seriously threatened.
UNC coach Roy Williams, who up until two years ago had never experienced a defeat on senior night – not as an assistant coach or a head coach, not at Kansas or at UNC – criticized his team's shot selection during Duke's decisive run. And pointed to the turnovers.
Overall, though, he seemed most frustrated with himself, and with his inability to to control players who lacked control during key moments. The Tar Heels didn't only lack for execution on offense, but they struggled especially the more Duke increased its defensive pressure.
“I've got to do a better job of getting them to focus,” Williams said. “Can't have those stretches there against a really good basketball team.”
But UNC has routinely experienced those stretches against better teams. Louisville, Virginia, N.C. State, Duke in the first meeting – they all made the most of UNC's second-half lapses. They all left Williams and his players attempting to explain, again, breakdowns in execution and focus.
“Obviously a 14-2 run, something went wrong,” said Jackson, who finished with 14 points. “I know there was a big turnover that I had and they ended up having two 3s the next two possessions to put it up by nine. … I don't know what it was.
“We got lackadaisical, just stopped playing. But against a team like that you can't do that.”
There were bright spots for UNC. Paige played one of his better games and finished with 23 points – 17 of them in the second half. During the first half, the Tar Heels held Duke scoreless for more than six minutes, and the Blue Devils didn't make a shot from the field for nearly 10 minutes.
When it mattered most, though, Duke asserted itself – trapping the Tar Heels' guards in the backcourt, changing defenses, forcing turnovers – while UNC faded when it could least afford unproductive stretches. The result was something familiar, and yet unfamiliar.
Williams, after all, isn't accustomed to losing on senior night. He never did in 10 years as an assistant coach at UNC, and then ended 24 consecutive regular seasons as a head coach with a victory.
“And now we've lost two of the last three,” Williams said, the words quiet but heavy with emotion. “And so whatever I was doing earlier, I need to get back to doing a better job.”