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Duke 64, UNC 54: Searching for Upside

Well, what is Carolina left with after a loss like that one? They came out playing with passion and intensity, but ultimately got beaten on effort-related stats like rebounding. They played Duke close for 35 minutes, but fell apart down the stretch. They forced the big three into some pretty bad shooting nights, only to have Jon Scheyer stick a dagger in them in the last three minutes. The Heels got a ton of things go their way last night, only to end up scoring less than 60 points and lose by double-digits yet again. What to do, what to do…

To their credit, the Heels did seem to play with a level of intensity that has been absent for much of this season. While it really buoyed them in the first half and disguised some otherwise ugly play (like John Henson’s two airball hook shots being turned into putback dunks), it may have hurt them in a number of ways down the stretch as Duke took full advantage of multiple Carolina players over-pursuing on defense to clean up on the glass. Yes, UNC collected a season-high 12 blocks, but Duke also grabbed 19 offensive boards and turned that into 21 second-chance points - there’s a correlation there. Not to mention the fact that caught up in the tide of excitement in the last few minutes, Carolina was scrambling around and heaving up prayers instead of running any kind of offensive set - seemed like everyone who touched the ball wanted to bring the Heels back into the game with a big three. Instead, they shot themselves right out of the game. The rebounding issue may be the most mystifying one of the game for me - I think it’s finally time for analysts to stop looking at a team that’s tall and say they’re a good rebounding team, because Carolina has all sorts of height but still has tons of trouble crashing the boards.

At least we saw this team really give a crap and not look like a deer in the headlights for once. There are some notable exceptions to that last statement: Ed Davis’ 4 pt 5 reb 3 TO performance sticks out like a sore thumb, and Dexter Strickland looked more tentative and sloppy than I’ve seen all year. Nonetheless, Larry Drew looked like a real point guard at times and John Henson showed exactly why scouts drooled over him in high school. It’s really hard to figure out what to take from this game. I think Doc from Tar Heel fan may have said it best:

In the end, this game will do little to change your opinion of this team.  If you think the season is done for, you can point to the poor decisions, terrible inside play, and lack of offense to back you up.  If you think there is still hope, you can point to the defensive effort, transition game, and knowing that for 37 minutes the team was in a position to win against a top-10 team.

I, for one, will do my best to remain optimistic - Roy Williams said in the offseason he thought this team could be very good defensively and they showed that in spurts tonight. I think the focus will have to be on locking down on defense the rest of the way because the disappearing act that is the Heels’ offense probably won’t win them any games on its own, unfortunately - UNC may to have to play (*gulp*) Big-Ten style ball the rest of the way, winning ugly if they win at all. Whether they can change their innate run-and-gun DNA enough to make that possible remains to be seen.

And if you’re looking for a team that would be even more excited than Duke to kick us while we’re down, battered and beaten NC State comes to the Dean Dome this weekend. Let’s hope that Carolina took some positives from the loss and begins to move on - otherwise, it’s a scary thought to imagine that this team may not have hit rock bottom yet.