Familiar Script

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – There’s a thin line between the elite and the just good of college basketball. North Carolina has long been on the right side of that divide. Games like Saturday’s loss to No. 3 Duke, however, provide insight into the minutiae that separate the haves and have-nots.

A few teams, such as top-ranked Kentucky, have the ability to persevere through sloppy play due to top-level talent. Others, such as No. 2 Virginia, rely on efficiency and poise to maximize each possession’s value.

Roy Williams’s best teams have followed the Wildcats’ path to glory, but without the talent of the ’05 and ’09 title teams, UNC has faltered down the stretch multiple times in close games due to an inability to get quality looks on each offensive possession and corresponding defensive stops on the other end.

“I think that it’s typical of what we have in college basketball all around,” Williams said after the 84-77 loss. “We’ve had some teams that have spoiled us, there’s no question, about the focus and not having those lapses, but today it was huge… We have good kids, but they can’t feel like they’ve got to do it themselves.”

Five weeks ago, Louisville scored 17 second-chance points and 14 points off turnovers after halftime in rallying from an 18-point deficit against UNC with 17:51 to play. During the postgame interviews, the Tar Heels talked about the Cardinals capitalizing on easy plays, making the extra pass and playing as a team down the stretch, while noting their own inability to box out and take care of the ball at critical junctures.

Roughly three weeks ago, UNC built a 10-point lead at Duke with 3:51 to play before losing it due to a similar allotment of miscues. The Tar Heels changed up the script two weeks ago in their home loss to N.C. State, reducing a 16-point second-half deficit to two points before committing six turnovers in a 14-possession stretch to hand the game back to the Wolfpack.

On Saturday, that familiar script played out yet again as UNC watched a seven-point lead whittled away to nothing as Duke grabbed control with a 14-2 run midway through the second half.

The Tar Heels committed six turnovers over their final 14 possessions, including three consecutive miscues that allowed Duke to turn a three-point game into a nine-point game with 6:19 to play.

“We played pretty doggone well except for a four- or five-minute stretch there,” Williams said. “I’ve got to do a better job of getting them to focus. You can’t have those stretches there against a really good basketball team.”

Good teams, such as this UNC edition, don’t have much, if any, margin of error against elite teams like Duke, Virginia and Kentucky. When UNC plays well, it can play with any team in the country. A litany of empty possessions when they matter most, however, result in a revolving door of head-scratching losses that prompt discussions about poise, efficiency and sense of urgency, or a lack thereof.

Justin Jackson’s comments after Saturday’s loss have been heard before in the UNC locker room this season: “I really don’t even know how to explain what happened towards the end.”

In the midst of highlighting a number of plays in which UNC failed to execute – a Duke offensive rebound and putback here, a failure to close out on a open 3-point shooter there – Marcus Paige summed up his team’s steady stream of struggles in the clutch with one sentence.

“They just made a couple of plays due to the discipline and the attention to detail,” Paige said, “and we just kind of missed out on those opportunities.”

It’s indicative of UNC’s current plight that Roy Williams pleaded to his team during one late huddle to keep their poise. Jackson said he could sense his team tightening up when the Blue Devils were executing and the Tar Heels were not as the game clock ticked down.

“It’s hard for anybody, whenever another team is going on a run like that, to keep your emotions down and keep your poise,” Jackson said, “but against good teams, you have to do it because the game is a whole bunch of runs. Against a good team like that, the runs are going to come and you’ve got to be able to withstand it and come right back at them.

“In that last run they had, we didn’t come back at them.”

Junior wing J.P. Tokoto agreed that the Tar Heels lost their poise at times during Saturday’s loss, their fifth defeat in six games against the Blue Devils.

“It was up and down,” Tokoto said. “We’d have great moments and then we’d have bad moments. When we did have our bad moments, they capitalized. They did a good job of that.”

While the players talked about poise, Williams harped on focus. Regardless of what label deserves to be attached to UNC’s sixth loss in its last 10 games, the evidence was available on the court in the form of turnovers, defensive breakdowns and poor shot selection.

Despite Saturday marking the end of the regular season, the Tar Heels remain optimistic that their trend of late-game stumbles can be corrected before their postseason comes to a close.

“You can always fix something that’s not working out,” Tokoto said. “It’s just a matter of fixing it. It’s easier said than done, but it has to be done.”

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