Duke overcame a lot to beat Carolina, including a poor outing by Nolan Smith and unfortunately a knee injury to Lance Thomas which Coach K characterized as "serious," although just how serious won't be known until Thursday.
UNC controlled the inside game for much of the contest, blocking 12 shots and really making it difficult for Duke to score in the paint. Fortunately, the outside game was on, and Duke hit 50% from three point range to compensate.
Duke also took over the boards in the second half and finished with 23 offensive rebounds and 51 overall, thus taking some positives out of all those missed shots inside.
But more to the point, when it came to winning time, Duke stepped up and UNC shrank, and this was after a point in the second half when UNC appeared to have most of the significant advantages - control inside, momentum, and one of the handful of times each season that the Dean Dome is a threatening environment.
After the score was tied 45-45, with 8:21 left, Duke's experience and Carolina's uncertainty took over. Witness:
Defensive rebound, missed basket, offensive rebound by Mason Plumlee and that wicked reverse dunk. Defensive rebound, Scheyer layup. Scheyer three pointer. Singler steal...Smith layup...Singler layup, Scheyer three pointer. That was a run of 9-3 and you could almost see the life draining out of the Heels.
During the same time span, UNC managed this: Larry Drew missed a three, Graves made a three, Ed Davis turned it over, Drew missed another three, then a two, Henson made a pair of free throws, Marcus Ginyard missed a jumper, Drew missed another, then he missed another three, followed by a miss by Will Graves.
In the last 4:05, UNC took eleven shots and made just two. There's almost no way to win a close game shooting like that.
In fairness to UNC, they did play without Tyler Zeller and Travis Wear, and their inside rotation was reduced. But it's not like Deon Thompson, Ed Davis, and Jon Henson are chopped liver. They were very active and productive inside, at least defensively.
However, it's also fair to say this: you can't explain away all the failings of this team simply because they're young. Will Graves is a junior and somehow hasn't really learned to play defense. Deon Thompson is a senior who finished with 10 points and four rebounds in the most critical game of the year, really, for UNC. Marcus Ginyard grabbed eight boards and played effectively on defense, yet shot 3-10.
Ed Davis is a sophomore, but he was also the most talented big man on the court Wednesday. So how come he finished with just four points and five boards? Yes, he blocked six shots, and yes they were a big deal, but he had a chance to score with 1:17 left, having caught Drew's missed three, but just bobbled the ball out of bounds. That sort of thing was as typical of his game as were the blocks.
This is a young team, true, but it's also a team lacking in confidence and senior leadership. If you want to point a finger somewhere, point it at Ginyard and Thompson, both seniors, but with no apparent ability to step up and lead their younger teammates.
So who's got next? After Thompson and Ginyard, perhaps the least effective senior leaders at UNC in memory are gone, who steps up? Graves? Drew? Henson? A freshman?
It could be Harrison Barnes, and as gifted as he is, he'll still be a freshman.
In other words, there's no guarantee, no silver bullet that things will be significantly better next year.
And as for the rest of this year, there are no guarantees either. State is the closest they'll get to a sure thing, but after that - and that game will be to escape the cellar - they have Georgia Tech on the road, BC on the road, Florida State at home, Wake on the road, Miami at home and then will close out at Duke.
As for Duke, given the adversity they faced, and with Thomas's condition unknown, there's a cloud over what should be a satisfying win. Yet consider this: while UNC plays to stay out of the cellar on Saturday, Duke and Maryland will play for sole possession of first place. Scheyer and Greivis Vasquez will have a duel to decide who is the frontrunner for ACC Player Of The Year. Coach K and Gary Williams will match wits for high stakes.
And UNC will be playing to keep out of the basement. Things have changed.
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