Well it wasn't an instant classic, but another chapter of the Rivalry was written last night. If you are reading this blog, then you saw the game - so mere game recap is not necessary. But as always there are some questions to be asked and answered.
From the Baby Blue Perspective:
1) Looks like the PJ-as-starter era has begun. What do we make of his performance tonight and what it means for the Heels going forward...
I still can't figure out if the Era of Starting PJ has begun or if starting small last night was just a tactic Roy employed in the absence of big-body James to catch the Devils off-guard (a tactic which, according to Chris Collins at halftime, worked). Roy didn't really say one way or the other in his post-game interview. But if it is indeed Hairston's time, then well done, P. J., very well-deserved.
However, if Hairston is going to be starting from here on out, it appears that would coincide with a decision by Roy to play small ball on a regular basis rather than a decision to start him in favor of Paige or Strickland, which is a decision I am growing to like. Hairston did a much better job defensively in the post than I thought he would (and a better job overall than most people will give him credit for, guarding everyone from Thornton to Plumlee), and it doesn't appear that any of our other bigs are ready to step forward this year.
Hairston was the best player on the floor for us last night, but he actually had a very poor night shooting (1-for-7 from three). To think that he'll have games where he plays like that and connects on some of those threes, wow. As I've always said, he will be huge for us not only this year, but for one or two more years to come.
Bottom line: I love what Hairston does for us off the bench, but I love more what Hairston does for us period. We still have offense coming off the bench in McDonald, so as long as we continue to start a defensive unit (i.e. Strickland) and he's not taking time from Paige, I'm more than happy to reverse course and have Hairston get as many minutes as possible. The next step is figuring out how to get the ball out of Strickland's hands and into Hairston's in end-of-clock situations.
2) Take out the FT shooting ( which , as bad as it was, was still only 2 makes short of the season average) and explain how the Heels didn't manage to pull this out. Do you guys believe in moral victories ? Was this one to build on or just another disappointing loss to a quality opponent ?
The fact that the only things standing between a huge upset and a pseudo-court-storming were poor foul-shooting and Thornton hitting 75% of his three-point shots leaves me with very little to say. The Heels are a poor foul-shooting team overall this year (65%), but not only did McAdoo throw up a woeful 1-for-5 from the line last night, Bullock (88% on the year, 92% in conference play) went 1-for-4. Find a way for three of those seven misses to go in and Thornton to connect on only two of his four threes (which would still be much better than his 33.3% average to that point), and that's the ballgame.
But if we're looking to pinpoint exactly where things went wrong for the Heels last night, it comes down to two factors: poor outside shooting and a temporary let-down in intensity. And it probably comes down to two pivotal plays that exemplify these breakdowns.
The first came after Plumlee exited the game with three fouls early in the second half. The Heels held a 38-31 lead with a chance to go up 9 or 10. Instead, Bullock got lackadaisical retrieving a loose ball, allowing Cook to sneak in a poke it away while drawing Bullock's second foul. Bullock would pick up his third foul on the ensuing possession, forcing him to loosen the defensive reins on Curry, who he had absolutely shut down to that point. This play was emblematic of a larger, 12-minute team-wide drop in aggressiveness and concentration once Plumlee left the game.
The second came with the Heels up 1 as Hairston came up short on a fast-break three with 13:30 left to play, leading to a transition break that gave Duke a lead it would never relinquish. Vitale was critical of the shot, but he shouldn't have been. It was a good look, and that's why P. J. is in there. That's what he does. It's easy to be critical after he misses, but if he hits that shot (as he's done so often in the past), then it's a two-possession game with Hairston heating up. It didn't fall, but that was Hairston's night: a game-high 23 on 1-for-7 shooting behind the arc.
If we were going to pull this one out, we needed Duke to miss a lot of threes and us to make a lot of ours. The first happened, the second didn't. Two of our best shooters (Hairston and McDonald) combined for 1-for-10 from distance, and Bullock's 4-for-7 performance was only good enough to put us at 27.8% from three on the night.
As for what this game means for the Heels going forward, I side with Roy when he says it's a waste of time to look for moral victories or learning experiences in losses (you can find those in wins, as well). But I do think this game could help come tournament selection time. A blowout loss would have been bad, but the Heels looked like a Top 20 team for the first 26 minutes, and certainly a Top 64 team throughout.
Our inability to knock off top-tier teams is clearly frustrating, but our 16-8 record doesn't look quite so bad when you consider that half of those losses have come to the top three teams in the nation. Three of the other four have come to Top 40 teams. If we can manage to beat the teams we should beat from here on out (UVA, GT, Clemson, FSU, and Maryland), then our performance Wednesday night could certainly tip the scales our way compared with other bubble teams this March.
From the Royal Blue Perspective:
1) With Mason and Seth playing arguably their worst collective game of the year (or at least their worst half of the year), and Duke managing foul trouble all-game long, and Carolina looking much more ready for the moment as a team...how the hell did Duke win that game?
Will you take an "I don't know" as a correct response? The FT shooting difference, especially in the second half, will get a lot of attention. Yes, that was a factor in the game no question. As noted above Carolina is not a great FT shooting team, but the timing of the misses were grimace inducing and made them feel more critical. It was definitely a signal that the game pressure seemed to be getting to the Heels who had otherwise been the much more mentally prepared team. Duke finally stopped making mistakes, starting hitting shots, and the leaderless Heels didn't respond well.
But to me the bigger story was the Heels poor shooting from the floor. A paltry 38% for the game (worse in the second half). In fact after a sizzling 7-12 to start the game (many of the the times taking advantage of poor communication/defensive rotation by the Devils that left shooters open or uncontested layups) they finished 18-54, or 33%. That is not going to get it done against quality opponents. Duke's second half defense surely played a part in the performance, but shot selection was a big problem. Every Carolina player as guilty of getting into the act: McDonald a badly rushed airball, Paige with early challenged jumpers, Hairston an ill-advised transition 3, Brice Johnson rushing even with his size advantage down low, and McAdoo with several badly forced attempts he seems prone to on the way to another terrible shooting night 4-12. (side bar I know I have it in for McAdoo, but wild inconsistency has got to be maddening from the Carolina perspective)
On the positive side of the ledger for how Duke actually won, they didn't loose the rebounding battle overall (despite giving up 17 offensive boards) and they did shoot FT's very well. Also they had Quinn Cook carrying them in the first half - finishing with 18 points, 2 assists, 4 steals and 6 defensive rebounds - and Rasheed Suliamon playing a big role as a driving facilitator with 5 assists - most for easy layups and dunks. Also have to credit our PF combo of Josh/Amile for heady play, especially when Mason went out of the game in the second half and Duke did not fall apart. Of course the hero of the game was Tyler Thornton though. More on him in a minute.
Carolina has to be given credit for playing determined basketball for 40 minutes. For the first 25 minutes or so they were the more focused team as well. Duke doesn't often get out played and out hustled at Cameron, but last night I would say they did. But right now, they are the team with more realized talent, (even without Ryan Kelly) and that carried the day ultimately.
2) So who was Duke's Player of the game?
One could make an argument for Quin Cook, but his contribution was not so far out of the realm of what was expected. For my money it was definitely the offensive dynamo named Tyler Thornton.
As Will chimed in, he hit 3-4 from distance (including Duke's only make in the first half) and took each one without hesitation. It gave me flash backs of his big shots last season to win the game against Kansas in Maui and his huge 3 that sparked the 10 point turnaround in the waning moments in the Dean Dome. He also helped fight to keep the ball alive on the tip out to Seth Curry's three that gave Duke its first lead and had an amazing lead pass to Quinn Cook for a transition layup to put Duke on top for good moments later. When Duke went with 4 guards to counter UNC's small lineup he was banging Reggie Bullock in the post. But most of all he played with the ferocity Duke fans have come to appreciate and opponents like to ridicule. (one member of the BvB braintrust tweeted his excitement at the prospect of seeing a lot of Thornton after Quinn picked up his second early foul - a not unreasonable thought in the moment but careful what you wish for...) He is the perfect energy guy to bring off the bench, but his offensive outburst was the difference in the game without question.