CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – As No. 5 North Carolina’s eight-point lead melted away into a one-point deficit in the final minute against No. 20 Duke on Wednesday, the lengthy string of disjointed offensive possessions suggested a stoppage of play was needed, if for no other reason than to settle down and breathe.
For a coaching eternity, dating back to his time as an assistant under Dean Smith, Roy Williams has remained steadfast in his belief that his team should attack if there’s more than seven seconds on the clock. The reason is to prevent the defense from getting set, as well as limiting substitutions.
Despite that strategy that’s branded into his players’ psyche, Joel Berry ended up dribbling toward the UNC bench, down 74-73, with 14 seconds to play instead of toward the basket.
“I just went over there just in case Coach wanted a timeout,” Berry said, “and then he told us to go, so I just tried to attack.”
That brief detour allowed the Blue Devils to set up defensively, and after Allen worked around a screen to stop Justin Jackson’s drive into the lane, Berry ended up with the ball out front with eight seconds remaining. Derryck Thornton stayed on his hip as he spun into the lane, lofting a contested shot from 12 feet. There was contact, although Thornton was credited with a block, not the foul.
“Coach tells us to attack if there’s more than seven seconds left on the clock,” Paige said. “Joel, I think, was thinking we were going to call a timeout, so there was a little confusion, but we got a decent shot.”
Despite nearly 40 years of coaching and unapologetically adhering to his late-game strategy, Williams questioned this decision following UNC’s fourth straight loss – and the 11th in the last 14 games - to Duke.
“I told the kids I should have called a timeout,” Williams said. “We didn’t get as good of a shot as I thought we would get.”
Paige told reporters he didn’t need to hear the apology, nor did he want to hear it. UNC’s offensive breakdowns started long before that final play. Theo Pinson’s driving layup with 11:09 to play pushed the Tar Heels’ lead to 62-55.
Points were hard to come by thereafter as UNC scored 11 points over its final 17 possessions. Berry attempted an 18-foot fadeaway on the first possession out of the under-4 minute media timeout, and Paige missed a 3-point attempt on the next trip down the floor with UNC trailing by one.
With 12:55 to play, Brice Johnson had established himself as the storyline of choice with 27 points and 17 rebounds. That was not an entirely unexpected performance, given Duke’s small lineup with only one legitimate big in the rotation. However, the ACC Player of the Year candidate attempted just one shot the rest of the game, coming off a scramble play in which Jackson picked up a loose ball and found him for a dunk underneath.
“They were trying to deny Brice from getting the ball, and then when Brice and them did get the ball, they weren’t on the blocks, so they had to back them down,” Berry said.
UNC’s failure to effectively pound the ball inside against Marshall Plumlee, who played the final 14:06 with four fouls, limited its ability to score with its continued empty conversions from outside. The Tar Heels missed 12 of their 13 3-pointers, while their starting backcourt combined for 15 points on 4-of-22 shooting.
“We’ve just got to make a better effort to look in there,” Paige said. “Brice has got to work a little bit harder to get the ball, and we’ve got to take care of the ball. I had a couple of turnovers at the end that cost us the game and I missed a bunch of shots that I usually make. You know, Brice, he can’t do it all. It seems like he about did it all tonight, but somebody’s got to help him.”
Duke, meanwhile, simplified its offensive approach midway through the second half to exploit UNC’s man defense with heavy doses of isolation plays for Allen and Brandon Ingram that either resulted in shots at the rim or kickouts for 3-point attempts.
“it didn’t have anything to do with our offensive end,” Berry said. “I know the last three or four possessions we didn’t score, but it was just that they outplayed us on their offensive end.”
There’s some truth in that statement. The Blue Devils scored on seven of their final 10 possessions after trailing 68-60 with 6:49 to play.
This North Carolina team, however, is at its best when it flourishes offensively, whether in transition or feeding the post. Relying on defensive stops to offset empty offensive possessions is not an equation for success against top-25 competition.