“I need to find someway, somehow, to get my team to the point where we do the little things that make the difference between winning or losing a basketball game,” head coach Roy Williams said.
With Lawson doubtful heading into this matchup of top-five nationally-ranked teams, North Carolina (21-2, 6-2 ACC) needed to accomplish several things in order to grind out a victory – pound the ball inside to Hansbrough, limit the turnovers and play solid defense against the sharp-shooting Blue Devils.
Unfortunately for the Tar Heels on this night, only one of those things occurred.
While Hansbrough dominated in the paint with 28 points on 12-of-21 shooting and 18 rebounds, Duke (20-1, 8-0) forced 20 turnovers with the help of 11 steals, and North Carolina allowed their rivals to connect on 45.5 percent (30-of-66) of their shots, including 44.8 percent from long range (13-of-29).
“They got any shot they wanted,” Williams said. “I don’t know very many times tonight [that] our defense dictated what shot they got.”
To make matters worse, the only other Tar Heel making any shots on Wednesday was fellow post presence Deon Thompson, who scored nine points to Hansbrough’s 18 in the first half to keep the game close at 42-39 at the break. But the 6-foot-8 sophomore was limited to just 18 minutes after picking up several cheap fouls near the time line, and fouled out with 4:26 remaining.
North Carolina was unable to cut Duke’s lead to less than five points during the final 15 minutes.
North Carolina’s perimeter offense was non-existent. Wayne Ellington (3-of-14), Danny Green (1-of-10) and Marcus Ginyard (3-of-10) combined to shoot 20.5 percent on the evening. Their counterparts faired much better, as Greg Paulus (18 points) and Jon Scheyer (17 points) led the Blue Devils with eight 3-pointers on 12 attempts.
“I thought we rushed our shots, [and] we didn’t make them play defense…,” Williams said. “Sometimes we had good shots. And if you’re going to have good shots and you’re going to be a good shooter, then you’ve got to shoot the ball on game day. Doesn’t do you any good to shoot the ball during the week or anything, you’ve got to shoot the ball well on game day or you’re not as good a shooter as everybody says you are.”
Lawson lifted the Smith Center crowd’s spirits early by participating in the pregame shoot around, but the sophomore point guard and his head coach determined shortly before the tip that he would not play due to the left ankle sprain suffered in Sunday’s win at Florida State.
"It was an easy decision,” Williams said. “I told him if we had doubts about it I wasn't going to play him. I asked and he said, `I don't know' and the decision was that I wasn't going to play him. So it was pretty easy. He came to me and said, `I don't know' and he said he didn't feel good. So, I said he wasn't going to play."
Senior backup Quentin Thomas delivered a solid, if unspectacular, performance in scoring 10 points and dishing out seven assists while committing six turnovers against an aggressive Duke defense that held the Tar Heels to 40.6 percent (28-of-69) shooting on the night.
“We didn't do what we were supposed to do on the defensive end and we missed shots on offense and that happens,” Thomas said. “But, when you're not doing well on the offensive end, you still need to work hard and get stops on the defensive end and that's what we didn't do."
North Carolina was able to utilize its size in winning the rebounding battle, 49-38, but the Tar Heels only forced 15 Duke turnovers.
“Our ability to have a good turnover differential, a positive one, almost negates sometimes the thing with the boards,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
The Tar Heels were able to build an early 18-13 lead by forcing the ball into Hansbrough and Thompson, who combined for 16 of those initial points. But the Blue Devils connected on three 3-pointers in an 11-0 run that give them a lead they would never relinquish.