Well that was just horrible. UNC's long weekend of struggling out from holes they dug themselves finally took its toll, beginning with another slow start that saw Kendall Marshall benched early and ended with five minutes without scoring from the field. In between, there was a lot of heart from Carolina, and a lot of things beyond their control that just didn't go their way, but none of that could make up from the fact that the Heels were just soundly beaten this afternoon.
Kyle Singler vs. Harrison Barnes, was in their third meeting more of the anticlimactic same. Singler was held to 11 points on 5 of 14 shooting, while Barnes managed 16 on 6 of 15. The point guard battle went even worse for both players. Kendall Marshall was repeatedly benched for poor play and finished with five turnovers and only four assists. He was good at getting past Nolan Smith, especially in the second half, only to be collapsed upon by Duke's bigs that kept s shooting to 3 for 10. Smith only fared slightly better on the other end, shooting 6 of 18 and using a fair bit of free throw shooting to get to 20 points.
Where Smith excelled, however, was finding the Duke role players. He had 10 assists on the evening, and more importantly, the rest of the team shot a combined 18 of 26 for 44 points. The Heels did a decent job defending Seth Curry, who burned them in the previous two games, but when everyone else is draining their shots, there's not much you can do. It didn't help that the Blue Devils outrebounded UNC early, and finished with 32 boards to the Heels' 39. The early rebounds helped Duke jump out to a 17-8 lead, after which Carolina never got it back to single digits. That the Plumlees for the most part avoided foul trouble to contribute significant minutes didn't help, either.
On the offensive end, UNC spent the game flustered. Dexter Strickland sat for long stretches of the first half after picking up three fouls – two being offensive charges of, will say, dubious contact. (The picture to the right shows the second charge.) This denied the Heels a lot of their penetration, as well as defensive help. Marshall, as I said, never found a real rhythm today, and thus the touches for Tyler Zeller and John Henson inside didn't come as often as one would like. Not that it mattered; the two were a combined 9 of 26 shooting, hampered by Duke's interior defense, which was much improved. The second half brought Carolina more offensive rebounds, which helped stem the tide for a bit. But just like a good stretch of the Miami game, when UNC got offensive production, they didn't get defensive stops; when they managed to deny the Blue Devils baskets, they couldn't get scores on the other end.
Eventually UNC clawed back to ten with a little over five minutes to play, and found Harrison Barnes open on the wing for a three on the next possession. Unlike the previous games, however, Barnes shot wasn't true, and Carolina would collapse, failing to score again from the field as Duke responded with a three from Ryan Kelly, a Mason Plumlee dunk and free throws the rest of the way.
The loss hurts, and although I think a second seed depending on the region may be better for the Heels than the number one seed in the West they were likely to get with a win, it's small consolation. This team had a pretty lousy weekend in Greensboro all things considered, and hopefully they can regroup and get back to their peak before hitting Charlotte next week.Otherwise, there could be a very quick ending to a very maddening team.
I'll be back in a few hours to liveblog the Selection Show as always, although this one might have the fewest surprises for the Heels in recent memory. Until then, enjoy the Big Ten championship, I suppose.