DURHAM – In a loss to a rival, it sounds pedestrian to say North Carolina gave great effort when it lost, because the Tar Heels did both, playing a mostly excellent game from an energy standpoint before succumbing to a better Duke team, 73-68, Wednesday.
Given context, however, North Carolina’s 40 minutes at Cameron Indoor Stadium lends optimism to the thought that North Carolina can insert itself in the final field of 68 teams that qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
The Tar Heels – ranked inside the top 10 early this season – made a habit of playing horrendous first halves in big road games. North Carolina allowed Indiana to score 46 points in the first half in an eventual blowout.
Against Butler, North Carolina trailed by 17 at halftime. Against Texas, the Tar Heels trailed by 13 after 20 minutes. At N.C. State, the halftime deficit was 19, and at Miami, it was 17. All were losses.
It was different against Duke, as the Tar Heels turned in their best defensive 20 minutes of the season in the first half, at one point holding a 10-point lead.
“Well, I was extremely disappointed to say the least, but I am not disappointed in the effort of our team,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “The intensity (Wednesday) was better than it has been all year long.”
By their own admission, the Tar Heels (16-8, 6-5 ACC) have not been playing with the desire needed to be the top 25 team they have looked like for short glimpses.
North Carolina has been erratic at best, something which the team’s leaders believe is a result of energy, or lack thereof.
“The first half, I remember against Virgnia Tech, us being at home and them being up, 12-0, and us not having energy or the sense of urgency at all,” senior guard Dexter Strickland said. “That’s one of the things we need to focus on. I think we did a great job of that (Wednesday), but we need to keep pushing throughout the whole game.”
The Blue Devils changed the course of the game but not because North Carolina failed to match Duke’s intensity.
The Tar Heels were ready for Duke’s offense. Duke usually wins games lobbing the ball into forward Mason Plumlee and shooting from the outside. In the first half, North Carolina forced Plumlee into more turnovers than field goals and held Duke’s best shooter, Seth Curry, to two points on 1-for-6 shooting.
So in a fairly desperate move, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski went with four guards, playing backup point guard Tyler Thornton at power forward.
Duke hit four 3-pointers in four minutes an took the lead, though the Tar Heels made the 10-point favorite sweat the entire way. And the Tar Heels never cowered to the environment.
“We took the crowd out of it early. Of course, it’s still going to be loud – the Cameron Crazies – but we kind of blocked out the crowd, and we just kept our eyes on the court,” guard P.J. Hairston said. “We played poised in the first half. That’s why we got easy buckets.”
North Carolina’s players sounded much like their coach following the loss: The Tar Heels aren’t interested in moral victories.
As point guard Marcus Paige said it’s very easy to bring intensity to a road game against Duke. It’s a different story to do so in every game, regardless of circumstance. Yet, there was something to be taken from the loss for North Carolina.
“We lost the game, but at the same time, we saw what we were capable of when we do play hard,” Paige said. “There’s not a lot of X’s and O’s that come down to it. When we bring our effort and play as hard as we can, that’s the team you saw in the first half, and that’s a team that can be really dangerous.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com