Usually a loss to Duke is followed by utter despair. As the seconds start to wane, and it becomes evident that the Tar Heels aren’t going to pull it out, you might switch the channel to avoid the eminent celebration, or at least mute the TV. This was not the case Wednesday night. Instead we were left with confusion and mixed emotion. There was surely some despair after the loss, but with the sheer unbelievability of it, there was befuddlement. You couldn’t shake the feeling that you’d just seen a legendary game, so naturally you wanted to be excited, but the result of the game deterred that ability. It’s taken a day of mourning and avoiding ESPN at all costs, but it’s time to think about this game in a two ways: it’s implications for the rest of the season and where it falls in the UNC/Duke rivalry writ large.
First, the obvious one: This was one of the best games in the already legendary series between the two schools. I can’t say the outcome was particularly energizing, but consider all the interconnected factors in Duke’s comeback, and it seems like something that could only happen on Tobacco Road.
There was the timely shooting, with Duke hitting three 3-pointers in the final two and a half minutes. There was a no call on a travel violation by Seth Curry (No, this is not me blaming the refs. It happens, but it doesn’t change the fact that it DID happen.) There was the eerily precise deflection by Tyler Zeller. I mean, that thing was a swish — a perfect fucking swish. Call it an own field goal. There were missed free throws, and of course, the big last shot.
If just ONE of those doesn’t happen, the game is different. How many of you felt sick when you saw that Duke was only down two with 13 seconds left? I personally felt like throwing up. It didn’t make sense for them to come all the way back just to miss the last shot. This is Duke-Carolina. Something was about to happen — a tie and OT, or like what actually happened, a loss.
The fact that Austin Rivers — the recruit who chose Duke over UNC and who has the classic, JJ-esque arrogance in his game — had the ball should have tipped me off. This wasn’t going to end well.
As for this season, this game’s implications aren’t the end of the world. An otherwise masterful 37 and a half minutes was nullified by a horrific two. Harrison Barnes (25 pts, 3 rebs, 2 stls), Tyler Zeller (23 pts, 11 rebs, 2 blks) and John Henson (12 pts, 17 rebs, 2 asts) have been playing like All-ACC candidates. Kendall Marshall (14 pts, 8 asts) is finally turning into a scoring threat with his penetration. Beginning with a run at the end of the first half, UNC played like the better team, but just couldn’t quite put the game out of reach.
It raises the point that’s been made about this team before. It lacks killer instinct. Being up 10 with less than five minutes left to play is the time to put your foot on a team’s neck and stomp away, not to get lackadaisical.
On the bright side, if the Heels play like they did Wednesday night, they’re going to be quite tough to beat. Currently, many observers are projecting UNC to grab a No. 2 seed. I know I wouldn’t be happy to see Carolina as the two in my bracket — a team with a huge, high-scoring frontcourt that can run the floor and block shots? Please. The Heels biggest worry is not ability, but mentality coming off this loss. They’re going to be in the tournament next month, but will they be able to make something happen?
As we saw Wednesday night, anything is possible.