If you watched the game last night between the archrivals of Tobacco Road you can understand why it is the biggest rivalry in all of college basketball. And while I am not incline to say that the game between No. 5 AP & ESPN/USA Today North Carolina (20-4 ~ 7-2 in the ACC) and No. 9 ESPN/USA Today/No. 10 AP Duke (20-4 ~ 7-2 in the ACC) was an instant classic, the last seconds of the game were classic, even if they went against UNC. For head coach Roy Williams this must be the first game where the absence of Dexter Strickland had to truly hurt. For the team this hurt as well, as Tyler Zeller, who was a key in keeping the Tar Heels in the game in the first half sounded devastated once the game was over.
But before I do my recap I would like to say something to the fans of this great program. It was a tough loss, one that will be remembered (and shoved in our faces probably) for a long time. That does not mean that it is time to melt down thanks to the social media outlets. If you are upset it’s definitely understandable but to go on UNC web boards, twitter, facebook, you name it, and bash players and/or the coaching staff is utterly absurd. It was a hard fought game by a team without two key players being able to play due to injuries and with probably the best player of all not at 100%. It didn’t go our way, we move on and we keep going.
Now to last night’s game. In the first half, thanks to the three’s, which as I said in my preview needed to be kept in check if the Heels were going to win this game, Duke lead for most of the way. And, as I said prior, it was thanks to the 17 points of Zeller that North Carolina stayed in the game. The Blue Devils took leads of five points, and the Tar Heels chipped away at it, then seven, and again the home team came back and then eight, and yet again the Heels would not go away. The theory of the first half was 3 pointers for the opposition and dominating the paint for the Heels. It was something that in the end of the first twenty minutes paid off as coach Williams took his squad into the locker room with a three point lead after UNC stole the ball and went on their patented fast break for a basket just before the break.
As I said to somebody during the intermission if I had been told that Carolina would be up by three points with neither John Henson nor Harrison Barnes doing much I would have signed on the dotted line immediately. And in the second half both of them, Barnes more than Henson, came to play. And in the second half UNC took control, going from a three point lead all the way to a dozen, with the fast pace that had Duke on the ropes. But just as one tweet said during the game “Duke won’t submit and Carolina won’t make them submit”, as the Blue Devils always stayed in the ten to dozen point deficit, sometimes getting into single digits, but never seeming a threat. In that time frame Barnes became the next North Carolina player to get to 1,000 points, as he scored a team high 25 points. Both Zeller and Henson had double double with the first one having 23 points and 11 rebounds while the second one had dozen points and 17 boards, bringing him within 14 points of being the next Heel to reach a 1,000 points.
“It really hurts just because of how we played the whole game,” said UNC’s John Henson, who had 12 points and 17 rebounds. “For us in the last three minutes just to give it up like that is really depressing.”
But then something happened. The team stopped pushing and began to play set by set with Duke, making them get breathers as they didn’t have to chase the Tar Heels all over the court. Couple bad shots, couple of missed free throws by UNC and several trifectas by the Blue Devils and the double figure lead turned into four points. Then once again a mistake by the home team and the squad from Durham had it by one. Back and forth until with about 15 seconds Zeller was fouled with UNC up by one. He went one for two from the charity stripe and then, as it was shown all over this happened…
…and that was the end of the game which shocked all that watched it.
Once again UNC was not able to hit from outside, going 1 for 6, while Duke shot 14 for 36 from beyond the arc. But what hurt most, as it has since Strickland has been out, is the bench output, as Carolina was outscored 15 to 6, with P.J. Hairston missing on all of his three attempts (2 from 3 point range). Had just one gone in this game would have a different outcome. These two areas have to be a major concern for the coaching staff as neither seem to have been handled in the last five games and finally they caught up with the team, unfortunately against their arch rivals.
In the end this game was without a doubt a heart breaker, as North Carolina had it in hand, but then let it go because, as many have said, this team does not have the killer instinct that other squads from Chapel Hill have had. But what does this game truly mean? Probably the reality that unless Carolina goes undefeated from now until the end of the ACC Tournament they will not be a number one seed, as well as they are now once again bunched up atop of the ACC with two other teams that hold the tiebreaker against the Heels. And while this loss stings in more ways than one the team needs to get ready as it does not get easier with another Top 25 team coming to Dean Smith Center next in Virginia.