UNC shot a season-low 27.3 percent in the first half against their rivals. The Tar Heels missed two jump shots and committed three turnovers in their first five possessions in falling behind 14-0.
Where North Carolina succeeded in building a 10-point lead in the first half at Cameron Indoor in this small lineup’s coming out party is where it failed in the second meeting.
The strength of UNC’s new look has been its ability to maximize its spacing to create driving lanes and make room inside for James Michael McAdoo and outside for Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston. On Saturday, for the first time in eight games after serving as a consistent theme through the first 23 contests, North Carolina failed to create driving lanes and often took ill-advised shots that led to Duke run-outs.
In other words, UNC panicked.
“We haven’t shot 27 percent in many halves, but the reason we did that is because we lost our poise and took bad shots in the first half,” Roy Williams told reporters on Monday. “We’ve been taking better shots.”
Hairston’s only explanation was that UNC had been playing so well lately that the players weren’t accustomed to falling behind so far so early.
“We started rushing things on the offensive end and doing things that basically Duke wanted us to do,” Hairston said. “We started rushing shots and basically playing one-on-one instead of playing as a team.”
Those types of comments were commonplace following blowouts against the likes of Butler, Indiana, Texas and Miami this season. Saturday’s performance, however, provided a shock to the system.
Freshman point guard Marcus Paige admitted that stemming the tide in-game was a difficult task.
“Personally, I sense it, but sometimes it’s a tough thing to stop doing when a team’s scoring baskets on you,” Paige said. “You just want to try to get back and score as quickly as possible. That’s just a natural mindset as a competitor. So you realize it, but at the same time, it’s tough to stop until you start making some baskets.”
Since going small, UNC has been at its best offensively when attacking the rim. Williams indicated that there are two ways to be aggressive – a quick 3-pointer from a good shooter and penetration, either by dribble or pass.
A long-time Williams rule is that players are not allowed to shoot a 3-pointer on a pitch-ahead in transition, although Wayne Ellington was granted an exception during his career. Hairston and Bullock have been given a green light this year as well, but open 3-pointers most often occur after solid ball movement and/or penetration.
Neither happened on Saturday, leading to contested 3-pointers and a 1-for-14 effort from long range.
There’s plenty of hope for a quick turnaround, however. While poor performances led to sullen postgame locker room scenes earlier in the season, the Tar Heels were angry following their Senior Night defeat.
The difference? A true sense of self.
“We’ve shown that we know how to play to the best of our abilities,” Paige said. “Earlier in the season, we didn’t really have an identity as a team, so we had guys trying to do too much at times, especially when other teams would go on runs. We know who we are, we just got away from that in the last game.”
Confidence and pride in knowing their identity has allowed this group to become mentally tougher than it was just a month ago.
“We know who we are,” Hairston said. “We know what we did wrong, we know where it went wrong and we know how to fix it, because we’ve fixed it before. It’s something that can be fixed and we can turn it around.”
There’s still plenty of room for growth, and how UNC truly responds to its regular season finale won’t be known until this weekend in Greensboro, but the confusion that lingered in player responses earlier in the season are no longer present in their voices.
“We understand the mistakes that we made Saturday night and now we have more knowledge and more experience to hopefully change those things quickly,” Williams said.
UNC will open the ACC Tournament as the No. 3 seed on Friday night (9:30pm) against the winner of No. 6 seed Florida State and No. 11 seed Clemson.