DURHAM, N.C. – There are a multitude of factors available for scrutiny when dissecting No. 8 North Carolina’s 86-78 loss at No. 18 Duke on Thursday.
The Tar Heels’ offense went dormant in the final minutes. They missed nearly half of their free throw attempts, including some critical ones late. With Isaiah Hicks sidelined with a strained hamstring, UNC was outrebounded and Kennedy Meeks was effectively removed from the game.
“You can pick out anything,” Roy Williams said during his postgame press conference.
The most glaring concern, however, both in this game and for UNC’s closing stretch to the season, is a defense trending in the wrong direction.
Duke shot 52.6 percent from the floor, including a lethal 48.1 percent from 3-point range on 13-of-27 shooting. Grayson Allen scored a game-high 25 points, connecting on 7-of-12 3-pointers along the way, while Jayson Tatum scored all of his 19 points after halftime. Leading scorer Luke Kennard added 20 points, displaying an ability to get into the lane and use his size against smaller defenders.
“They shot the mess out of the ball,” junior wing Justin Jackson said. “That just shows the type of players that they are. They stepped up at big times with big shots and knocked them down. Hats off to them.”
That type of praise was prevalent in the Tar Heel postgame locker room.
“They just hit great shots,” senior forward Kennedy Meeks said. “They hit shots that they probably shoot in practice all of the time. Sometimes we didn’t have an answer for them. We’ve just got to do a better job as a team to give defensive effort.”
The Blue Devils shot better than 50 percent in both halves, continuing a lackluster defensive performance by the Tar Heels. Opponents have shot 50 percent or better in seven of their last 11 halves against UNC, and better than 48 percent in nine of their last 11 halves.
UNC has allowed its last six opponents to shoot 48.5 percent from the floor and 40.9 percent from beyond the arc. For a team with championship aspirations, that level of defensive inefficiency is not good enough to achieve the goals in place.
Last year’s Tar Heel squad held its ACC opponents to 40.5 percent shooting (34.6 percent 3FG). The 2011-12 team was even better defensively, holding league opponents to 39.7 percent shooting (32.5 percent 3FG). The offensively explosive 2007-08 and 2008-09 squads were less imposing on the defense, but still held their ACC opponents below 43 percent shooting.
The current group of Tar Heels is allowing its league opponents to shoot 45.6 percent from the floor and 38.6 percent from long range.
UNC’s offensive struggles were glaring late at Cameron Indoor Stadium, as the Tar Heels missed seven of their final eight field goal attempts while being outscored 16-7 over the final 6:50. But a one-point lead doesn’t become an eight-point loss without defensive failures.
“We definitely made mistakes that we can’t have, especially defensively,” said junior wing Theo Pinson, who returned to the lineup after missing three games with a rolled ankle. “If we want to be a championship team, we’ve got to get stops. Then we don’t have to worry about if we miss shots. If we get stops and create turnovers we can get to the other end.”
The good news is that UNC remains atop the ACC standings with six conference games to play, thanks to a tiebreaker against Florida State in pocket. Without defensive improvement, and quickly, the Tar Heels’ tough closing stretch may yield more losses.
“Our goal is intact,” Pinson said. “We’re still up there. We’ve got a chance to still win it, but we’ve got to take care of ourselves and win games.”