That one stings a little. Not as bad as, say, tying the game up in overtime in 2004 only to have Chris Duhon drive end-to-end untouched for the winning layup as time expired. Or even mounting a furious comeback in Cameron in 2003 only to have Ray Felton dribble it off David Noel’s leg on the potential game-tying possession as the seconds ticked away. Those were punches to the gut, whereas this loss was more like eating a bad sandwich. Either way, it leaves you feeling a little nauseous afterwards.
At the final buzzer, there was plenty of praise from the Tar Heel faithful for Carolina’s effort tonight, and rightfully so. They aquitted themselves well as a top 25 team and a worthy opponent to Duke, as well as showing their young guys can compete on a national stage. But that having been said, It’s really tough to stomach a loss where you outplay your arch rival on their home court so badly to the tune of a 14-point halftime lead, then watch it slip away so quickly in the second half. You can write it off that Duke is just better and both teams performed where they should be; you can say Duke just got all the breaks, 50/50 balls and calls in the second half; you can say they were fortunate to have their perimeter guys absolutely catch fire, but there has to be equal parts blame and credit given to both teams when you look back at this game.
UNC came out on fire, seizing control by going inside early and pushing the tempo as they led the entire first half. Duke certainly helped them with a lot of foolish, rushed shots on offense that seemed designed only to fire up the crowd without actually thinking about what their best matchups were. The aggressiveness, especially on the offensive end, was impressive as Zeller and Henson showed no fear in the post and Barnes flashed some skill early. Their edge inside and on the glass was glaring, and K must have been hounding his team about it because Duke hit the boards hard in the second half.
As Duke closed the rebounding margin down, Carolina’s lead melted away, as the Devils racked up something like 7 or 8 offensive boards in as many minutes of the second half. I (and everyone else) expected Duke to make a run at some point but the Heels just couldn’t counter punch as nobody could hit from the outside (a miserable 2-14 from 3), Marshall couldn’t make defenders pay for backing off him slightly to play the passing lanes (he had a solid game but shot just 3-11, including several missed runners and layups), and Harrison Barnes seemed really winded from having given a lot of effort on defense to shutting Kyle Singler down (held Singler to 3-17 shooting for just 10 points, but racked up just 9 himself). With Carolina’s clear edge in the frontcourt, it was a really frustrating second half to watch as they couldn’t seem to get the ball inside easily, nor could guys get in position to rebound a lot of the long caroms that were coming off of Duke’s bombs.
Zeller really played well all night, notching 24 points and 13 boards to go with Henson’s 14 and 12, but they did also have 7 turnovers between the two of them. Carolina has certainly proved they can beat Duke, but in order to do that they’ll need a little more from the bench (just 11 points, including 0-5 from Reggie Bullock and 1-10 from 3 for the bench as a whole) and a little more on offense from the dynamic duo of Marshall and Barnes, who both had some incredible flashes tonight but have to deliver consistently and/or at clutch points in the game (i.e. when Duke is mounting huge runs). Carolina has been much improved on offense as of late but it’s still a little disturbing to watch us go through 3-4 minute stretches where we don’t score.
Give Duke their credit though, obviously; Seth Curry came up huuuuge for them - he could have gotten even more than the 22 points he ended up with, as several jumpers were just a half-step or so inside the line - and Nolan Smith was an absolute monster, looking like the only Duke guy who came to play in the first half and exploiting his rather unbalanced matchup with Kendall Marshall in the second to end up with a career-high 34.
It’s interesting that although Duke won this game, they may have proved less than Carolina did tonight, and that’s why so many fans are satisfied with the result. People saying Duke has a weakness inside that can be exploited probably still feel the same way, and people saying Carolina is a legitimately good team that continues to play better and better probably still feel the same way, too. I think Carolina’s certainly shown themselves to be a team that’s capable of getting out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. But for me, greedy fan that I am, that’s not enough. I wanted that win tonight. I wanted to step on their throats after halftime and extend the lead and leave the crowd grasping for explanation. I wanted the Crazies’ weeping and gnashing of teeth and to send Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler home with a loss in their last game in Cameron against UNC. I want to beat Duke.
Fortunately for me, there’s a rematch that’s less than a month away. Start the countdown to March 5th.