“We'll turn that sucker over in a heartbeat … we may do some crazy things at times, but for the most part they bring it on game night,” UNC’s head coach said Monday afternoon, 30 hours before his team did exactly that.
And there were plenty of mistakes made by the young Tar Heels in their 87-83 loss to Duke, including 11 turnovers in the first half and even six straight to open the second, but while the poise was lacking at times, the effort never wavered.
So there were no students rushing the court, no bonfires on Franklin Street and you won’t find a Carolina player, coach or fan satisfied with a moral victory. However, consider these four elements of the game …
* The Comebacks. Down 17 points at the 16:17 mark, the Heels kept battling and in turn scored 12 straight points. Trailing 61-51, Carolina put together a 20-5 run over the next five minutes to take a five-point lead. Lastly, even when behind 84-77 with under a minute left, the Heels remarkably came within a loose ball of a potentially game-winning possession.
* ”Standoff.” That’s the term Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski used to describe the end result of Tyler Hansbrough vs. Shelden Williams. That’s a Carolina freshman against Duke’s senior defending National Defensive Player of the Year and a likely First-Team All-American. It was indeed a stalemate – Hansbrough posted 14 points, nine rebounds and a block, while Williams had 13 points, 9 rebounds and four blocks.
* Board Domination. UNC outrebounded the Blue Devils, 45-26, including a 22-7 advantage on the offensive glass. David Noel (9 reb, 5 off), Tyler Hansbrough (9 reb, 4 off) and Reyshawn Terry (5 reb, 3 off) excelled among the starters, but Danny Green came off the bench to tally nine rebounds (4 off) in only 16 minutes on the court.
* Blue Team. The Tar Heels don’t make their comeback early in the second half if not for the five new players Roy Williams brought into the lineup at the 16:52 mark. While obviously serving as a wake-up call for the starters, the substitutes more than held their own. Carolina’s “Blue Team” outscored Duke, 6-2, over the three-minute stretch and set the stage for the big comeback. “Coach took us out to get our heads right and the second five came in an and gave us a little spurt, and we took it from there,” Terry said. Leading the way was Quentin Thomas, playing with a level of confidence not previously seen. His stat line (5 pts, 4 ast) won’t jump off the page, but for the first time this season, the team played considerably better when Thomas was on the floor. "`Q’ did give us a lift," Williams said.
The bottom line was that in a battle between a green Carolina squad and a group of seasoned Duke veterans, the Tar Heels were the aggressors for most of the night.
“They attack you – teams that attack get fouled,” Krzyzewski said. “Tonight, they got us into foul trouble because they attacked us.”
The Heels not only attacked on offense, but on defense as well, where they had the normally sure-handed Blue Devils on the ropes and needing three three-pointers from J.J. Redick in the final four minutes and a good bounce of the ball in the final seconds to hold off the Heels.
While there were plenty of lessons for the inexperienced Tar Heels to take away from Tuesday night’s loss, the most important result may in fact be an increase in confidence.
“We can beat anybody,” Green said postgame. “There is nobody out there that we can't beat or compete with.”
As they learn from their mistakes and gain confidence, the overriding theme for this squad continues to be effort, which certainly hasn’t been lacking this season. Similar to the comeback against Illinois more than two months ago (though this loss is sure to sting far more), the team's energy and fight inspired the Smith Center faithful even in defeat.
“If I ever have one of my team’s quit, I will walk out of here and stop coaching,” Williams said.
And if Tuesday night was any indication, Roy Williams is going to be on the sidelines for many years to come.