After Dexter Strickland scored back-to-back baskets to keep UNC close at 50-47 with 12:06 to play, the Tar Heels lost their poise offensively. They missed 13 of their final 20 shots, but more troubling than the misses were the empty possessions.
The spacing that opened penetration lanes in the first half contracted, leading to poor shot selection often early in the shot clock.
Brice Johnson pulled up for a jumper just six seconds after a Duke miss on the other end. On UNC’s next possession, James Michael McAdoo’s steal in the frontcourt morphed into a turnover when Strickland forced the ball into the lane congested with Blue Devil defenders.
“We had some bad possessions, some that we usually don’t have,” Reggie Bullock said. “Taking a shot over somebody’s hand, not taking five more seconds to get a better shot, stuff like that.”
Despite the offense losing its rhythm, North Carolina manufactured scoring opportunities with its aggressiveness and strong play on the offensive glass (UNC had 12 offensive rebounds in the second half alone).
Those efforts led to 17 second-half free throw attempts. Unfortunately, the Tar Heels failed to capitalize from the charity stripe as well.
P.J. Hairston hit a pair of free throws to give UNC its final lead of the game at 43-42 with 13:55 to play. The Tar Heels missed seven of their final 13 free attempts from that point on.
“The bottom line is we didn’t make free throws today,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “We’re not a good free throw shooting team in games. You guys would be amazed to look at the numbers and the percentages that we make during practice.”
Bullock stepped to the line with his team trailing by four with 6:40 remaining and made just one of two free throws. On UNC’s next possession – this time with a five-point deficit – McAdoo missed the front end of a one-and-one. Two minutes later, McAdoo failed to convert a pair of free throws with his team down six.
Bullock would miss two more free throws until Strickland snapped the streak with a pair to cut Duke’s lead to four with 1:15 to play. Hairston had one last chance to pull his team within four again with 33 seconds left, but converted only one of two attempts at the charity stripe.
North Carolina shot 56.5 percent from the line (13-of-23), including a 9-of-17 effort after halftime. Bullock and McAdoo combined to make just 2-of-9 from the stripe.
“If we would have just made five of those, it would have been a different outcome of this game,” Bullock said.
Duke knocked down 13 of its 14 free throw attempts in the second half. The Blue Devils missed seven fewer free throws than North Carolina and won by five. The double-digit unsuccessful attempts had the Tar Heels scratching their heads in the postgame locker room.
“It’s just something that you try to work on,” McAdoo said. “It hurts, but just missing free throws doesn’t lose a game. It’s a loss from a lot of different aspects, but it hurts.”
The missed opportunities will undoubtedly linger as UNC came up short in its quest for the high-profile victory that its NCAA Tournament resume is currently lacking.
“I just felt like we played with more energy and we had some shots to win the game, but we just couldn’t connect on them,” Bullock said.