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Duke 79 Carolina 73 : Whew !

Wow. Just, wow.

Getting to watch games in Cameron is always an honor and a privelege, but nights like tonight almost leave me at a loss for words. Almost.

A great deal of the pre-game speculation centered around the question of how UNC’s young team would handle the insanely tough environment of Cameron and in the first half they answered the bell in a big-time and impressive way. The second half was a very different story.

As has been documented on this blog, Duke has turned in some real stinker first halves of play this year ( UVA, and, most notably St.Johns, to name a couple). Tonight was yet another one, as the youthful Heels came out and punched Duke directly in the paint repeatedly while the Devils torporific offense struggled to accomplish anything that didn’t involve Nolan Smith. UNC’s strength lies in their interior play, and, whenever they remember to involve Zeller and Henson, the results are hugely positive. Since the advent of the Kendall Marshall-as-starter era, this is something they’ve done much more consistently, which has had the secondary effect of freeing up shooters as defenses are forced to collapse on the bigs. Duke simply had no answer for Zeller and Henson in the first half, as they dominated the Plumlees and Ryan Kelly in every phase of the game, owning a +8 rebounding margin and a 31-12 advantage on points-in-the paint. Duke’s offense was as feeble as the Heels’ was effective. The Devils shot a woeful 33 % percent from the floor, and much like the St.John’s game, were exploited in their inability to run anything threatening through the post, thus making their offense one-dimensional and predictably jump-shot oriented. And when those jump-shots aren’t falling, especailly against a team as offensively gifted as UNC, you end up with things like 14 point halftime deficits. Ironically, Duke was the team that looked rattled and frenetic eraly in this contest. Every loose ball and seemingly every 50/50 call went to the Heels in the first half and the collective mood in the concourses of Cameron at halftime was bleak to say the least.

To say that the second half was a huge turnaround would be a vast understatement. The crowd refused to let the first half get the better of them and came back to their seats completely committed to their sixth man duties. The Duke team did likewise, and from the opening seconds took on the aspects of determination and focus that were so inexplicably lacking in the first half. Duke kicked things off with an 8-0 run, keyed on offense by Nolan and Seth, which was a sign of things to come. Carolina called a TO, and immediately got the ball to Zeller on two consecutive plays for a quick four points. Then the Nolan/Seth show began. From the 16 minute mark to the 8 minute mark , Duke went on a 23-8 run. 20 of those points were scored by either Seth or Nolan, and it included one stretch where Seth scored 9 straight. On the other end of floor, Carolina went away from their strength and made themselves a jump shooting team. A great deal of this was attributable to the fact that they were keyed on getting Harrison Barnes the ball, and Kyle Singler simply wasn’t allowing that to happen. The two players effectively neutralized each other over the course of the game, but Singler’s ability to deny Barnes the ball in the second -half really disrupted UNC’s offense as a whole. While they were wasting time trying to get Barnes the ball, they weren’t looking to their bigs at all ( Thank God). The Plumlees and R.Kelly (finally) got their butts in gear during this stretch and played much stronger and tougher defense on the interior. Duke’s bigs reversed their fortunes on the glass as well, as Duke outrebounded the Heels by 3 in the second half (which included 9 HUGE offensive boards during the rally.) UNC remembered their bigs again down the stretch and used that and the oustanding play of Kendall Marshall (who, as a friend of mine says, is going to be a “four year pain-in-the-ass” for Duke) to create a very tense final 6 minutes for Duke fans, but it was not enough. Duke made enough foul shots to hold the Tar Heels at forearms length and eked out a gut-churning 79-73 win.

In his post-game remarks, Coach K said that his halftime talk to the team primarily consisted of admonishments to “calm down”. Mysteriously, Duke played like the inexperienced road team in the first half : frenetic, scattered and uncertain, while Carolina looked like the poised veterans. The second half was a complete reverse role-reversal (as it were) and, while Ol’Roy (and Zeke) reminded us after the game that there are no moral victories, I would say that most of Carolina Nation feels as good about a loss of this kind as a Nation can feel. I’m sure that Coach K would tell you that there are no Pyrrhic victories (not to suggest that that’s what this was; a win is a win, after all), but I would say that most of Duke Nation feels pretty fortunate to come away with a win ( and that we were playing that game in Cameron).

Last year Duke won the National Championship by being the best offensive rebounding team and best 3-point fg defensive team in the country. In the second half Duke pulled down 9 offensive boards and held Carolina to 0-7 from three point range and won because of it. We’ll hope, as Duke fans, that this is a sign of a team finally finding its identity.

Game Notes

- If you take away Zeller and Henson, here’s what the ENTIRE rest of the Carolina team contributed : 35 points on 12-39 shooting( 2-13 from 3)  20 rebounds and 9 assists. Which is to say that, once we limited their post production in the second half, they didn’t have a whole lot to hit us with.

- Singler had arguably his worst offensive performance as a Blue Devil going 3-17 from the floor. Some of this is attributable to Harrison Barnes, some of it’s attributable to Singler’s frustration at being absolutely clobbered every time he got near the basket without the benefit of a foul call, and some if it’s just due to the fact that he just hasn’t been a good shooter in ACC play this year. He missed several possible momentum turning shots. Those need to start going down.

- Nolan is just vomitously, disgustingly good.He finished with a career high 34 and looking back at some of the second half highlights, you can see how badly he wants the ball in his hands every time Duke has posession. If he isn’t the POY, I might go break something.

- Andre Dawkins found himself on the bench for essentially the entire second half after turning in a first half where he just played too poorly on defense ( as well as having 2 quick turnovers) for K to justify keeping him on the floor ( also, Seth was busy destroying it). I really hope he gets his head straight on ‘D’. We need his shooting. ( who wouldn’t?)