UNC worried about defense after defeat at Duke

Back in the locker room, North Carolina players were talking some about the missed free throws and those harried, rushed sequences on offense that contributed to their demise during an 86-78 loss at Duke on Thursday night.

And yet it was their defense, once again, that most bothered the Tar Heels, whose January defensive lull has now carried on into February. It is beginning to seem like a good while ago now since UNC played like a strong defensive team.

Back in December, though, the Tar Heels were among the national leaders, according to kenpom.com, in defensive efficiency, which measures how well a team limits scoring on a per-possession basis. After ranking among the top 10 there, UNC on Friday was 46th nationally in defensive efficiency.

If the Tar Heels remained there through the end of the season, whenever that ending might arrive, it'd be their worst defensive ranking since 2013, when they finished 48th nationally in defensive efficiency. It'd be worse, even, than their ranking in 2010, when they failed to make the NCAA tournament.

For nearly two months now, the Tar Heels have more often than not labored defensively. They did little, for instance, to slow Kentucky during the Wildcats' 103-100 victory in Las Vegas on Dec. 17. UNC struggled at times on defense in victories against Clemson, Wake Forest, Florida State and Pittsburgh.

Defensive failures led to the defeat at Miami on Jan. 31. And then came Thursday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where UNC couldn't generate defensive stops when it most needed them. The defensive woes exacerbated the problems on offense.

The Tar Heels didn't make a shot from the field during the final 3 ½ minutes. They missed eight of 18 free throws, overall, including the front ends of a couple of one-and-one opportunities that cost UNC double.

“We usually make a good amount of our free throws,” said Theo Pinson, the junior forward. “And tonight, they didn't go in. We're human. I'm not really worried about that as much. All of us are more worried about the defensive end – just the little stuff that we could have corrected.”

The Tar Heels appeared to make progress defensively during their victory against Notre Dame in Greensboro last weekend. They finished that game strongly, on both ends, after the Fighting Irish cut UNC's once-commanding lead to two points with less than four minutes remaining.

Whatever steps forward UNC took in that game, though, they retraced backward at Duke. The Blue Devils hurt UNC on the perimeter, especially, where they made 13 of their 27 3-point attempts. Grayson Allen, the junior guard, accounted for seven of those.

And the Tar Heels had no answer in the second half for Jayson Tatum, the versatile Duke freshman forward. He scored all 19 of his points after halftime, and whatever defender UNC used against him – Luke Maye, at times, or Pinson – did little to impede the onslaught.

“They made the plays whenever they needed to make plays,” said Justin Jackson, the UNC junior forward. “Grayson played really, really well. Luke (Kennard) played well. Jayson played really well. We just – we couldn't get a stop, and they made the plays whenever they needed to.”

Duke ran its offense with the third-highest efficiency of any of UNC's opponents this season, according to kenpom.com. The Blue Devils also shot more effectively from the field than all but two of the Tar Heels' opponents.

And yet UNC, which led 71-70 with less than seven minutes to play, still had its chances. If not for the free throws and the cold shooting stretch late, the Tar Heels might have been celebrating their second consecutive victory at Cameron Indoor.

As it was, though, they were talking, with urgency, about needing to improve defensively.

“If we want to be a championship team,” Pinson said, “we've got to get stops.”

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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