It’s been a while since a UNC-Duke game was as joyless as the one we saw Saturday night. On both sides, open shots were bricked, driving lanes were given up and only occasionally taken advantage of, and rebounding was a contact sport. The Blue Devils came away with the win because they had rim protection and North Carolina didn’t (I mean, you could probably come away with several takeaways, but that was my primary one), and the resulting ugliness makes it hard for me to name any Tar Heel who deserves to be called the Player of the Game. Usually, we do these and name some honorable mentions or possible alternates at the end. For this, though, I feel like I’m trying to pick a least bad option rather than a most good one, so I’ll start with the non-awardees instead. Sort of a process of elimination, I suppose, even if you know from the title who’s going to end up getting it.
Caleb Love probably played the actual best game of basketball by a Tar Heel on Saturday night, but it was only really in flashes. After hitting a three to open the game, he went just 1 for his next 6 from beyond the arc, and despite a couple of tough finishes inside the paint, he threw up a fair amount of junk to go with them, finishing with 12 points on 5/15 shooting. He had a pretty good floor game, with 4 assists and several more potential assists on pick-and-roll throwbacks or kick-outs that weren’t paid off, as he took on a lot more ballhandling duties than usual with R.J Davis getting in early foul trouble and also looking much less comfortable throwing long passes across the floor than Love. Whether it was by gameplan or his own mentality, though, Love seemed to have a blind spot for the middle of the floor even when he was driving; either he’d kick it out for a three or try to take it to the hole himself, well after it’d been established that Duke was going to find a way to ward off the UNC’s first attempt at the basket — and that probably cost the Heels a fair few buckets.
Speaking of Davis, he had a pretty similar game. He looked for dishes in the paint a little more than Love and ended up leading the team with 5 assists, but though his shooting touch looked better than in his last two games, it was definitely still not back, and Davis was 5/16 from the floor for 11 points. He also struggled on defense, including allowing Jeremy Roach the game-sealing drive to the basket on a play that looked identical to about three others he allowed to Roach that half alone.
Leaky Black had probably the best statline, with 13 points on 5/10 shooting, including 3/6 from beyond the arc, to go with 10 rebounds, but his play on the court was so infurating it can’t be him. He missed an early putback that may have been the easiest look of his career, passed up multiple open three-pointers in the corner just so he could weakly attack closeouts and take/miss contested shots rather than resetting the offense, didn’t move the ball much at all (Black has 7 games with 0 assists this year, after just 5 all of last season), and, all alone in the corner with a chance to take the lead with a minute to go, took a solid three seconds to launch, making the shot more difficult and giving him time to get in his head about the possibility of making it.
And that leaves Bacot, who struggled early against the length and strength of Dereck Lively II and, after that, seemed consigned out of the offensive gameplan, picking up his points on putbacks and a transition run-out or two rather than within the flow of the offense. He did that well, but not fantastically, with 14 points on 6/12 shooting and adding 10 rebounds, to go with 2 blocked shots, an eyebrow-raising steal, and a couple of assists. He was also the centerpiece of a designed play for him to pass out of the post into an open three-point look for Pete Nance late in the game when the Heels needed a three to even consider coming back, which kind of makes you wonder where that kind of thing was all game. I would’ve liked to see his early offensive approach extend a little further from the basket, pulling Lively away from the rim for his teammates, but after he got shut down there, he did everything he could and made some plays to keep his team neck-and-neck with their rivals. It just wasn’t enough, and he didn’t get enough help. Now to regroup, and hope against hope that it’s the last time we see that happen.