Poor free throw shooting and a struggling offense in the second half leaves UNC a little short against the Blue Devils in Cameron.
Let's get the ugly out of the way first.
This game came down to a pair of stretches starting with just under 12 minutes to go in the second half. With UNC trailing by five, the Heels would miss five straight shots and fail to score all while Duke was equally inept at their end of the floor. During that span Paige would miss a three, Strickland a jumper, McAdoo two jumpers and a "what in the blue blazes are you doing" missed jumped from Brice Johnson made up a series of bad offensive basketball. Also in that span, UNC failed to get a single offensive rebound, something that had helped them most of the night.
After that stretch, UNC trailed 50-54 with 6:41 left in the game when Reggie Bullock went to the free throw line He would make the first free throw but miss the second. That miss kicked off a string of six straight misfires from the free throw line, three by McAdoo and two more from Bullock. That streak contributed to an awful 13-23 night from the charity stripe which coupled with the aforementioned scoring drought ultimately crippled the Heels' chances at winning. It was quite simply a bad stretch of offensive basketball both from the floor and the free throw line. The Heels were, for the most part, getting it done on the defensive end. It was on the offensive side of the floor the Heels failed to produce at a crucial juncture of the game.
Aside from that, there were positives, the most prominent being the much lobbied for insertion of P.J. Hairston in the lineup. Roy Williams said postgame that he had toyed with Hairston at power forward 4-5 games ago but only with this match-up did he feel comfortable using it. Hairston did not disappoint with 23 points on a night he technically did not shoot the ball well. Hairston was 8-18 from the floor and 1-7 from three. Had he come anywhere close to his normal output from three, he would have been close to a 30-point game. Hairston was all over the court drawing three charges, dishing out three assists and collecting eight rebounds, seven of them offensive. It was a stellar night with his only mistakes being sagging off Tyler Thornton who hit a couple of second half threes for Duke. Hairston also passed twice when he should have shot the ball creating two turnovers. Other than that, he was as good as you would have hoped.
Likewise Reggie Bullock hit four threes and finished with 15 points. Dexter Strickland had some bad shot moments but scored 14 points mainly on transition and drives. With Hairston on the court at the four, the general spacing and flow of the offense was much better. This opened the door for Strickland to drive more which he could on most of the Duke players save Quinn Cook. Strickland also did a solid job(along with Reggie Bullock) limiting Seth Curry who only hit two threes and was 3-10 on the night. Strickland has great value to this team providing he is on the floor with both Hairston and Bullock while making better choices with what shots he takes.
So a win would have been nice and it was certainly in reach. One of the main reasons was the defense which was outstanding for much of the game. While McAdoo struggled offensively he was fairly tough against Mason Plumlee until the end when the Duke senior went to a very difficult to defend hook shot. Duke went 6-16 from three with three of those makes coming from Tyler Thornton. In short, UNC did not allow the three point shot to beat them. Coming against the #6 offense in the country, that is an encouraging sign.
Despite the loss, there are certain aspects to build off from this game, namely the fact UNC came out with great intensity, toughness and actually led at the half in front of the toughest crowd they've seen all season. Yes, the Duke game is the Duke game and expecting them to bring the same attitude on Saturday against Virginia is probably a little foolish. However, UNC needed a game against a top five team where they played like they at least belonged in the building. The Tar Heels did that tonight. The key now is making the effort seen in this game the starting point to a nice stretch run.
That is assuming Hairston continues to play big minutes. Stay tuned on that one.