"I thought we tried to go too fast," UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters following his team's 93-81 loss. "The first six possessions were two bad shots, two turnovers, and two baskets, on layups, but you can't score two out of six against Duke. You've got to score better than that.
"I think we allowed their defensive pressure to dominate our offense several times, and I thought they did early. First six possessions, I don't think we had more than two passes – somebody was jacking it up – usually that's not the kind of shots you want to get."
After numerous defensive lapses in the overtime victory at N.C. State, UNC ran out to a nine-point lead against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and a 14-point lead on Senior Night against Notre Dame. The Tar Heels were unable to put either opponent away due to lapses in focus and efficiency, and both teams had a chance to win in the final minute.
UNC could withstand such breakdowns against teams that aren't postseason threats. That wasn't the case on Saturday night as Duke clinched the No. 3 seed in the ACC Tournament, and more importantly, moved ahead of the Tar Heels in the quest for the Raleigh, N.C. pod for the NCAA Tournament's opening weekend.
"North Carolina needs to play a heck of a lot better," Williams said. "We've got to get back to that sense of urgency that we had for a few weeks there."
Despite UNC shooting a season-high 59.6 percent in ACC play, Duke countered with a 50.9 percent effort built on penetration and some well-timed 3-pointers in the second half.
UNC held the first nine opponents of its 12-game winning streak to 41.9 percent shooting. Its last four opponents have converted 45.8 percent of their field goal attempts.
"Our defense is something that we've prided ourselves on," junior forward James Michael McAdoo said. "Most of this season, it's something that we've been able to do successfully. I feel like these last couple of games, for whatever reason, we've kind of gotten away from that. So I think it's something we've really got to have a gut check about this week going into the ACC Tournament and preparing for that because it's not going to be any easier."
There were also positives that became apparent in the regular season finale that would end UNC's 12-game winning streak.
"We're going to have some trials and tribulations," senior guard Leslie McDonald said. "We understand that and we just kept pushing. We didn't know the outcome, but we felt that if we kept pushing, something was going to happen and we were able to get the lead down…
"It shows that this team is not going to back down even if it's not going our way. We're still going to fight, no matter what."
That's a critical component when it comes to March. If you're not mentally tough, you may as well stay home. It also helps to have a reliable guard in the postseason and Marcus Paige proved yet again that he's the most dangerous combo guard in the nation after halftime.
Seventeen times this season Paige has bounced back from a single-digit first half with a double-digit second half. He scored 18 of his team-high 24 points against Duke over the final 12:53.
The winning streak is over, and so is the regular season. UNC is only guaranteed to play two more games in 2013-14. Playing more will be determined by how successful the Tar Heels are at minimizing their weaknesses (effort lapses, offensive inefficiency) and leaning on their strengths (Paige, defense).
"To be able to go into the conference tournament with confidence, even though we did take this loss, I think is huge," McAdoo said in the visitors' locker room underneath Cameron Indoor. "I know we have great leaders and even our younger guys realize that it's going to take a huge effort for us to be able to go down there and win."