BROOKLYN, N.Y. – The obvious explanation for No. 1 seed North Carolina’s collapse against Duke on Friday night was a whistle blown with 15:04 to play, which signaled Joel Berry’s fourth foul and the beginning of a 10-minute, six-second residence on the bench.
The play marked the start of the Tar Heels’ decline, although a Justin Jackson 3-pointer and a Kennedy Meeks putback on the next two possessions to push their lead to 61-48 offered hope they could persevere. Then UNC lost its defensive nerve and its offensive rhythm as Duke outscored its rival, 45-22, over the final 13:53.
Berry was irritated after his third foul early in the second half and incredulous after the game-changing fourth, and was forced to watch his Tar Heels’ offense grind to a halt as the Blue Devils caught fire.
“I couldn’t do nothing about it,” Berry said in a somber UNC locker room. “I was frustrated. I put the blame on me. I’m the point guard of this team and I felt like me not being on the court hurt my team. Sometimes it just gets like that. I just wish I was out there to help them and to be able to compete, but that got taken away from me.”
The Tar Heels were lethally efficient in the first half, shooting 55.6 percent and averaging 1.32 points per possession to take a 49-42 lead into the break. Without Berry directing the offense, UNC missed 23 of its final 32 field goal attempts.
“You miss your leader on the court, definitely defensively, and somebody who’s able to hit shots for you,” Meeks said. “… He’s definitely one of the most important parts of our team, and for him to be missing definitely hurt us a little bit.”
The Tar Heels managed just 14 points in the paint after Berry’s fourth foul after dominating the first half on the interior (32 points in the paint). Meeks seemed destined for a career high with 19 points through the game’s first 26:07, but failed to score the rest of the way.
“They played with a lot of energy and effort,” junior wing Theo Pinson said. “The bigs came over and helped, and they got a lot of blocked shots. They were very active on the ball screen. They played hard. It was a hard-fought game. They made some big-time plays at the end.”
The Blue Devils, despite playing their third game in three days, were energized by Berry’s departure, shooting 68.8 percent (11-of-16) over the final 15:04.
As Duke was charging, UNC’s fouls were mounting, Roy Williams’s timeouts were collecting dust in his coat pocket and ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson was trying too hard again to shoot his team out of a tough spot.
And so while Berry’s fourth foul is the obvious answer for why UNC let a 13-point second-half lead turn into a double-digit defeat, there was a compounding aspect to the collapse. The Tar Heels not only lost their poise, but they were also outplayed and outcoached with a berth in the ACC Tournament final on the line.