The Tar Heels broke a two game losing streak against Duke and won their eight straight game.. Here are few additional thoughts about the game last night.
1. The 1-3-1 zone
For all the flack Roy Williams gets for his in-game coaching, this game was yet another example of him making moves from the bench that helped the team win. Allegedly this never happens except when it does and lately that's been quite a bit. In the second half, UNC employed a series of defensive changes using the 3-2 zone, man-to-man and for the first time this season a 1-3-1 look. While the Tar Heels had used the 3-2 some this season with a fair amount of effectiveness, the 1-3-1 came out of nowhere or did it?
When UNC played Maryland, the Terps showed a similar 1-3-1 defense on a couple of possessions including just after the Tar Heels won the tip. This past Saturday, Maryland used the defense against Duke and the Blue Devils had as much trouble with it as they did last night versus the Tar Heels. Of all the potential impacts of the game being postponed a week, this might be the most evident one. Roy Williams noted on Wednesday that the only difference in the game planning was assistant coach Steve Robinson had two more games to look at for the scouting report. Clearly watching the Duke-Maryland game at least gave the UNC staff the idea to use the 1-3-1 at times, if only to throw Duke out of rhythm offensively. According to Jones Angell, Williams talked to former assistant coach Jerry Green to get tips on running the 1-3-1.
At any rate, the defense served it's purpose as did the Dean Smith staple of changing defenses. Duke's drives were shutdown and the Blue Devils missed the three point looks they did get.
2. The crowd
Let me caveat this by saying I don't have a long list of UNC home games I have attended in my life but based on attending all but two games this season this was by far the best and loudest crowd I have experienced. Based on chatter in the press room, it didn't quite rival the 2005 game vs Duke but it was close.
The thing that stuck out most about the crowd was the sustained level of noise and the fact people stood the entire game except during timeouts. If you have been to UNC games you know the crowd can be a little "up and down." They make plenty of noise then the situation calls for it but don't generally stand for long periods unless the game has reached a critical point. This game marked a departure from that. Oh and it was loud. Very, very loud and when I reached the press room after the game was over I realized how loud it had been. My ears were ringing and my hearing muffled. Others reported a similar experience.
The great irony in the atmosphere last night is it may have very well exceeded what might have occurred had the game been played in front of a mostly student crowd last week. The conventional wisdom said that if the game last week happened in front of a predominantly student crowd lining the lower bowl of the Dean Dome, it would create an epic game atmosphere deemed rare at a UNC basketball game. As it turns out that epic atmosphere happened anyway and it's possible it was fed it not happening a eight days before.
3. The Redemption of Leslie McDonald
When the season began, Leslie McDonald was sitting on the bench in street clothes. He ran afoul of NCAA rules and paid the price in the form of a nine game suspension. When McDonald returned, he posted a couple of good outings, then had a stretch where his penchant for forcing shots resulted in some bad offensive mojo for the Tar Heels. That led to a 1-4 ACC start and a lot of Tar Heel fans running out the clock on his career. McDonald bounced back to score 15 versus Georgia Tech and 20 against NC State before embarking on a four game skid of single digit scoring and even worse shooting.
Then, in the game of games on the Tar Heel basketball schedule, McDonald had "that" game. The one that defines a career or at the very least earns him a small corner in the memories of Tar Heel fans. This was the Leslie McDonald Game. It was the game where the much maligned fifth year senior who never quite panned out on the court and was a source of angst off of it, showed up when UNC needed him most. He did what the fifth year senior is supposed to do. He put the team on his back and not just in any game but against hated Duke.
Chances are McDonald won't suddenly find consistency but his one shining moment against Duke earned him a nice tip of the cap from UNC fans across the board.
4. Marcus Paige is clutch
Leslie McDonald said after the game that as long as UNC keeps winning he doesn't care if Marcus Paige figures out how to play better in the first half or not. There is a lot of truth there. While a balanced game from Paige may have made this game easier to win, there is really no need to argue with the results. It is also clear that Paige is as clutch in big situations as UNC has seen in some time. The only entry missing from Paige's "clutchness" resume is a game winning shot. Outside of that, Paige just has a knack for making plays in the second half.
Last night followed the same script. While McDonald and others carried the load for much of the game, when UNC needed buckets after taking the lead, Paige was the one who provided them. With UNC up 62-60, Paige came around a McAdoo screen and nailed a jumper just inside the arc to make put the Heels back up four. After Duke closed it two on the next possession, Paige did this.
Paige was going against one of Duke's better defenders in Rodney Hood, a player with size and length to bother the Tar Heel guard. It didn't matter. Paige got into the lane then put up a tough scoop shot between two Blue Devil defenders to extend the lead back to four. Duke would never get any closer.
Paige continues to "own the moment" when it comes to him and McDonald is right. As long as UNC wins, that's perfectly fine.
5. The fans rush the court
For some reason fans rushing the court has become a subject of great debate among college basketball media and fans. There are any number of unwritten rules about when it should happen, what programs can do it and not do it. Dick Vitale was all over the latter point from the moment it started saying UNC's program should be above rushing the court over a regular season win against Duke. For the most part I have mostly agreed that rushing the court should be for a really big win, especially for schools who are not accustomed to getting really big wins.
In UNC's recent history, this is the fourth court rushing in the Dean Dome since Roy Williams arrived back in Chapel Hill. UNC did it after beating #1 UConn in 2004. The other three were after Duke wins in 2005 and 2011. In both of those cases, UNC had won the ACC regular season with a win over Duke and in both of those cases it had a "UNC is back" vibe to it. The 2005 and 2011 teams represented the reestablishment of UNC dominance after a brief downturn in 2002-2003 and 2010. In that respect it was a cathartic release of frustration and a true celebration of a return to the "promised land."
What happened last night could possibly be placed in this category. UNC had not beaten Duke since 2012 and not in the Dean Dome since 2011. The 2013 season was a "down year" of sorts and while UNC had registered big wins this season, including one against Kentucky, there had been a feeling that the program was floundering. The win versus Duke was UNC's eighth straight win and a validation of a winning streak that had come mostly against weaker teams save Pittsburgh. It felt like UNC was back and for one night back on top in their rivalry with Duke.
That being said, it should be noted that this court rushing appeared to be a spontaneous event. It didn't seem contrived in any way nor was there this "students lining up" or whatever other nonsense ESPN does to try and will such events into existence. It was an emotional outburst by a gaggle of college students who were *gasp* having fun. They were basking in one of those rare moments that just happens. Yes, UNC with it's five NCAA titles and numerous ACC accolades is probably above this sort of thing since there should always be bigger fish to fry. However, there is no such thing as a fan court rushing for an ACC Tournament or NCAA Tournament title. For the fans at a home game, beating Duke is the greatest rivalry in college basketball is a big win even if UNC should always have the program pointed towards loftier goals.
In short, it's not something that should be rare but when it does it's hard to fault college kids having fun, especially if it happens in a spontaneous and emotional way.
Correction: UNC also had a court rushing vs UConn in 2004. I have corrected that above.