North Carolina in many respects gave a heroic performance Thursday night: Sean May's 21 boards, Raymond Felton's leadership, the clutch shots by Jawad Williams and Rashad McCants should not go unappreciated. Carolina couldn't have competed any harder.
They could however, have played better, and frankly, there is no time for elegaic rhapsodies on the pain of coming so close and losing, not with where the Tar Heels sit in the standings and what they face over the next 96 hours.
Perhaps it was only fitting that poor on-court communication between Felton and David Noel – a defensive breakdown – created the space which Chris Duhon exploited to give the Blue Devils the 83-81 victory and Carolina's players and fans a bitter pill to swallow.
Small mistakes cost Carolina all night long: in the first five minutes of the game, the Tar Heels racked up six quick turnovers, almost all of the unforced variety. Missed block outs, blown fast breaks, shaky passing, and failure to finish strong inside cost the Tar Heels dearly over the course of the first half, although Carolina did at least keep enough composure to avoid a blowout and start to get back into it before the break.
The Heels played markedly better in the second half, driven on by the crowd and the extraordinary determination of Felton. Yet, when it came time for the kill, Carolina's basic offensive execution faltered: after building a 69-62 lead, the Tar Heels went seven straight scoreless possessions, including four turnovers (two very early in the shot clock on forced passes), two not-that-great looks from 3 that missed, and a questionable 17-foot jumper from May.
That dry patch allowed Duke to eventually regain the driver's seat, forcing Carolina to hit a very difficult shot to produce overtime. In overtime, Carolina played extremely hard, yet again couldn't take advantage of two chances to take the lead, down 79-78. Rashad McCants, who had a terrific offensive game, defied the odds by hitting another game-tying three, but Carolina couldn't come up with the all-important stop – or even do enough to force Duhon to give up the ball.
So credit Duke with a great victory, and credit Carolina with another lesson in the school of hard knocks. This is a vastly improved ACC in 2004, with 7 teams in the top 35 of the RPI in recent weeks, and the difference between winning and losing is narrower than ever. Every possession counts, and every mistake counts.
Given the competitiveness of the league, the teams that pull out more than their share of tight games, that are able to get it done on the road, are going to be the teams with the best fundamentals and greatest ability to limit mistakes. For decades under Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge, Carolina had the advantage in that department, most of the time. Carolina will have it again under Roy Williams, too – but the Tar Heels don't quite have it right now.
Right now, this Tar Heel team can be likened to Venus and Serena Williams – in the year or two before they hit their stride and began consistently dominating opponents. When they first arrived on the scene, the Williams sisters were liable to hit lots of aces and winners but also lots of unforced errors, and often ended up losing matches to more technically precise players like Martina Hingis. The sisters eventually learned how to limit unforced errors without sacrificing the strong points of their game, and ended up driving the likes of Hingis into early retirement.
This Carolina basketball team is simply hitting too many forehands into the net at the moment – that's the bad news. The downright scary news is that this Carolina team, imperfections and all, must find the emotional and physical wherewithal to duplicate the level of effort seen Thursday night agaistn Wake and Tech in the next four days, in hostile environments.
If the Tar Heels can do that, they should be competitive in both those contests. But if they don't also find a way to limit a few more of their mistakes, two more disheartening losses are highly likely.
Even if that happens, this is still a team with a huge upside — if a few more basic mistakes can be cut out in the weeks that remains. But 3-7 is an awful big hole to try to climb out of — far better if the Tar Heels can find a way to escape that fate in the crucial days to come.
Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many. You can contact Thad by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.