There have been times this season that UNC has struggled in games and even lost them because the offense didn't show up. In the games UNC managed to win, the defense generally played a huge role. That was the case on Monday night against Notre Dame. That was the case in the first UNC-Duke game in Chapel Hill. That did not happen Saturday night in Durham. UNC flipped the script, so to speak, shooting 60% from the floor against Duke and scoring 81 points. The problem? The defense couldn't get it done especially against Duke's two best players.
As UNC has done several times this season, a slow start was the order of business for the Tar Heels falling behind by as much as 13 in the first half. James Michael McAdoo was effective with 11 first half points but saddled with three fouls. Still the Tar Heels managed to claw back in the game to trail 40-37 at the break. Marcus Paige only had six points(natch) but Brice Johnson came off the bench to score 12.
The Tar Heels' biggest issue was Duke drove the ball at will. While UNC did a solid job covering Duke on the perimeter holding the Blue Devils to 2-13 in the first half from three there was no answer for Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker taking the ball to the basket. UNC's eight turnovers and the lack of defensive rebounding was a continual problem but with all that, the game was within reach.
It didn't stay that way for long in the second half. Parker was basically unstoppable and with McAdoo picking up his fourth foul 52 seconds into the second half, the Heels spent much of the period without a crucial interior player and someone with the quickness to guard the Duke freshman. Then it started to rain. Because of Parker and Hood's effectiveness getting to the basket, UNC trotted out the 3-2 and 1-3-1 zones. Unlike the game in Chapel Hill, Duke was ready for these looks and started hitting three after three to extend the lead to as much as 18.
When the game felt completely out of reach Marcus Paige got cooking scoring 18 of his 24 points in the second half . The Heels started getting enough stops to narrow the gap and cut the Blue Devil lead to eight with 2:50 left. What happened next pretty much decided the game. UNC forced consecutive turnovers with pressure and Paige missed consecutive threes. If one or both of those go down the game becomes a little more interesting. In the final 2:50 UNC forced four turnovers and did not score off of them failing to keep the proverbial foot inside the ajar door.
Meanwhile, Duke scored plenty off UNC's miscues throughout the game and grabbing their own offensive rebounds. Duke had 20 second chance points to go with 15 points off turnovers. The Blue Devils outrebounded UNC 34-20 which is a rarity between these two teams given UNC's perennial advantage in the post. In this instance, Duke had the better big man in Parker who grabbed eleven rebounds, four of them offensive. In the end it was a clear case of one of the nation's best offenses playing like it at home and the Tar Heels' defense simply couldn't get containment of it. In the end Parker and Hood combined for 54 points.
The loss is UNC's first since January 20th when the Heels fell at Virginia. Despite the loss this is a team that has grown by leaps and bounds since mid-January. This game didn't necessarily hold any reasons for anyone to panic. They still showed plenty of fight and Marcus Paige continues to be a force of nature in the second halves of games. In short nothing that happened in Durham negates what has been an impressive run by a team left for dead almost two months ago. And nothing that happened against Duke should change the outlook for this team heading into the postseason play.
With the loss UNC finished tied with Duke at 13-5 but via tiebreaker will be the #4 seed when the ACC Tournament opens in Greensboro next week. UNC will play at approximately 2:30 PM on Friday, March 12th against the winner of #5 Pitt and #12 Wake Forest/#13 Notre Dame.