North Carolina was trying to hurry out of its cramped locker room in Cameron Indoor Stadium, trying to get dressed and pack up and leave – and yet even then, in the rush, the Tar Heels took time to revisit scenes from their 86-78 loss at Duke on Thursday night.
When they did, this is what they saw: Missed free throws and poor sequences on defense, rushed shots on offense amid empty possessions. They saw a lead with less than seven minutes to play. And then they saw that lead evaporate. And then, at last, they saw themselves falling down a widening hole.
They were unable to stop that fall while the Blue Devils turned a 71-70 deficit into a commanding lead in the final seconds, Cameron Indoor Stadium erupting all the while.
And it became louder when Duke began its charge, and louder still when UNC’s offense became disoriented. Maybe it was the pressure of the moment. Maybe it was Duke’s defensive pressure. Maybe it was simply a matter of missing shots.
“Didn’t make them, pretty much,” said Theo Pinson, the Tar Heels’ junior forward, whose return after a three-game absence was among UNC’s bright spots. “I had a pretty good look, rimmed out. Joel (Berry) missed a couple of free throws, which you give him that chance again, he’s not missing. So they made the plays, we didn’t tonight.”
Then it was quiet again – the only sound, for UNC, the ringing in the ears and the soundtrack of second-guessing. Pinson heard those sounds while he tried to cleanse himself of defeat.
“We were all talking in the shower,” Pinson said, “like, dang, ‘I wish I did this, I wish did that.’”
The Tar Heels wished they’d made more of their free throws, after missing eight of their 18 at the line. They wished that during the final seven minutes they’d played more effective defense. They wished that they’d made a shot – more than one, at least – during that span, too.
When the memory of this defeat fades the way so many other minute details have during the 283-game history of this rivalry, it will be difficult to remember that the Tar Heels led 71-70 with six minutes, 50 seconds remaining. The place was quieter then, the people nervous.
After that lead by UNC (21-5, 9-3 ACC), the Tar Heels made only one of their final eight shots from the field. The Blue Devils (19-5, 7-4), meanwhile, outscored UNC 16-7 during that stretch and that, essentially, was it.
Roy Williams, the Tar Heels’ coach, credited Duke’s defense. The Blue Devils effectively switched off on screens, and they limited Kennedy Meeks, the Tar Heels’ senior forward, to seven attempts from the field.
Williams didn’t like how Meeks moved – or didn’t move, as it was – to gain position. Then again, Williams didn’t like a lot of things about those final minutes when the Tar Heels faded and when Duke, after losing an eight-point lead earlier in the second half, regained control and never relinquished it.
“We didn’t make the plays that we needed to the last three or four minutes,” Williams said. “Got to give them credit. We took care of the basketball, we didn’t turn it over but we still didn’t get the offense what we wanted. All of a sudden, we’re running our offense 35 feet from the basket.”
And all of a sudden, the deficit was growing: from one point to four, after Jayson Tatum’s 3-pointer with 4 ½ minutes to play, and then to six on Grayson Allen’s dunk about a minute later. The Tar Heels trailed only 77-75 with two minutes, 20 seconds remaining.
By then, they’d already made their final shot from the field. UNC didn’t make any during the final 3 ½ minutes. The Tar Heels missed Isaiah Hicks, the senior forward who didn’t play after suffering a hamstring injury in practice on Wednesday. Without Hicks, Tatum, the Duke freshman forward, took advantage of favorable match-ups on offense. He finished with 19 points, all in the second half.
Hicks’ absence also all but neutralized whatever size advantage the Tar Heels hoped to have, and it contributed to UNC’s relative rebounding woes. UNC is one of the best rebounding teams in the country, but finished on Thursday night with one fewer rebound (30) than Duke. It was the third time the Tar Heels had been outrebounded; they’re 0-3 in those games.
“That’s something that we think should be an advantage for us,” Williams said, “And it was not tonight.”
By the end, the Tar Heels found themselves desperately trying to hold on to hope. Like everything else, that faded away, too – especially after UNC failed to capitalize when it had possession, trailing by two, with less than two minutes to play.
Pinson missed a shot and, on the other end, Allen made a 3 to give Duke a 5-point lead. The Blue Devils made 13 of their 27 3-point attempts – exploiting the Tar Heels defensively on the perimeter.
“We just couldn’t get a stop, it seemed like,” said Justin Jackson, who led the Tar Heels with 21 points. Jackson said it more than once. It was one of the shortcomings the Tar Heels thought about while they hurried to pack up and leave.