With 4.7 seconds to play and UNC trailing 92-89, Duke swallowed up Marcus Paige despite a double screen attempt on the left side of the court. Nate Britt, as a secondary option, charged up to the 3-point line against contact and was forced to receive the midcourt inbounds pass facing the Tar Heel bench instead of facing the basket.
That 180-degree swivel, minor in length but significant in scope, enabled Duke’s Matt Jones to quickly foul, thereby preventing a catch-and-shoot opportunity.
Basketball is not the declared game of inches, but the idiom still holds true. The Tar Heels made that case in their 92-90 loss to Duke, the fifth in six games at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and more importantly, the fourth in five games this season.
UNC rallied from a 49-36 deficit with 2:18 to play in the first half to take a seemingly commanding 87-77 lead with 3:51 left in regulation.
The game then turned in Duke’s favor, in part because of Tyus Jones’s ability to slice through the middle of UNC’s defense and in part because of the Tar Heels’ miscues.
“We played well enough to win, and then the last three minutes things didn’t go our way,” Paige said. “Missed layup, ball thrown out of bounds, a couple of free throws, and then each time, they’re getting and-1s.”
Meeks appeared to find a teammate behind Duke’s press on the baseline, but leaned it too far to the right and threw the pass out of bounds with 1:23 to play. Several seconds later, Britt missed the front end of a one-and-one with his team clinging to a five-point lead. Brice Johnson also clanked the front end of his one-and-one with 38 seconds to play, failing to convert an opportunity to push UNC’s lead to four points.
Instead, another Jones layup tied the game with 27 seconds left, and after Marcus Paige’s errant jumper from the right wing, Duke had completed a 14-4 run to force overtime.
A handful of other miscues plagued the Tar Heels in overtime – none larger than Jones’s offensive rebound with 42 seconds left and Duke holding a one-point lead – but it was a snowball of minutiae that finally tipped the game in the Blue Devils’ favor.
A pair of driving layups by Britt and Paige down the middle of the lane somehow missed their mark. On UNC’s penultimate possession, Isaiah Hicks flashed to the high post and received a low pass that appeared from press row to slip out of his hands and bounce off the floor. It was such a slight movement that most viewers, including his head coach, thought Hicks could have dribbled to the basket.
“I thought I did,” Hicks said when asked after the game if he had unintentionally dribbled at the elbow, “but I guess I didn’t dribble so I could have attacked the basket. That’s the little stuff in that type of moment that we can’t have.”
Instead of squaring up for a 15-foot jumper, Hicks passed out to Tokoto, who attempted a jumper from the wing over Jahlil Okafor. The shot bounced off the rim and Quinn Cook secured the rebound with eight seconds to play.
After Britt was fouled on UNC’s final possession, Williams called a play to overload the left side of the floor and give his players a chance off the intentional free throw miss to secure the rebound and get a last-second opportunity to score on the putback.
Britt did his job, sinking the first free throw and missing the second attempt as perfectly as a player can miss a shot, bouncing off the left side of the rim and in the direction of a charging Paige from the wing.
“I was probably a split second away from being able to catch it and shoot it,” Paige said. “I almost got both hands on the ball. I caught it and then a couple other bodies came in. That was exactly what we wanted, but it just didn’t work out.”
Those minor details add an excruciating layer of frustration to UNC’s ninth loss in 12 games with its rival across the county line.
“The little things add up,” Tokoto said. “When it comes down to it, we let them back in the game. We didn’t hit a couple of free throws, didn’t get a couple of rebounds. I know I didn’t box out my man at the end of the game, which hurts to say, but at the same time, it happened. It’s easy things that you can fix, but you’ve just got to do it when it comes down to it.”
Despite an emotional confirmation of this matchup’s rank atop the best rivalries in college athletics, the Tar Heels are left with the knowledge of letting three double-digit leads slip away in five trips to Cameron Indoor.
“One play goes this way instead of that way and we’re having a different conversation right now, but it didn’t happen that way,” Paige said.
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