DURHAM — North Carolina’s 2019-20 basketball season can be summed up in one last first half sequence in Saturday’s rivalry showdown with Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
With the Tar Heels trailing by five, but still very much in contention, senior forward Brandon Robinson took an elbow to the face from the Blue Devils’ Cassius Stanley as he tried to block a shot from close range.
Not only was Robinson called for the foul, but he was also forced back to the locker room to go through concussion protocol. He eventually returned in the second half and played well, hitting a pair of 3-pointers.
But neither that nor another dominating inside performance from junior big man Garrison Brooks wasn’t enough to prevent yet another loss.
UNC’s injury-riddled regular season came to and end with an 89-76 setback.
At 13-18 overall (6-14 ACC), coach Roy Williams’ team will be the 14th- and last-seeded team in next week’s ACC tournament — its last chance to salvage something, anything from a campaign in which virtually everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong.
“It’s frustrating,” Williams said after his team’s third straight loss to the 11th-ranked Blue Devils dating back to last season’s ACC tournament. “But it’s what it’s been quite a bit this season.”
Unlike the first meeting between the rivals, a 98-96 Duke win at Smith Center on Feb. 8 in which the Tar Heels led nearly from start to finish before faltering in the final seconds of both regulation and overtime, UNC was forced to play catchup for most of Saturday’s rematch.
While both games were contested at a fast pace, only one of the teams was doing all the running up and down the floor this time.
Duke outscored the Tar Heels 15-0 on fastbreak points in the first half and 19-5 for the game.
It’s a stat that left Williams nearly speechless, considering that one of his program’s most recognizable traits has always been the strength of its transition game.
That was the biggest stat at halftime was that 15-0 fast break points,” the UNC coach said. “Their effort was much better than our effort.”
Williams’ Duke counterpart Mike Krzyzewski said that his team made a concerted effort in its preparations for Saturday’s game to limit the Tar Heels’ ability to run since that’s what hurt the Blue Devils in the earlier matchup.
They did it by dropping defenders back rather than crashing the boards.
“They got out on the break, really got some open looks. I can’t really say much about it,” Brooks said. “They did what we did the first game and did it better.”
Despite selling out to keep UNC from running, the Blue Devils still did a much better job on the glass. Outrebounded 51-42 in Chapel Hill, Duke nearly battled the Tar Heels to a stalemate this time with only a 38-37 disadvantage.
A big reason for that was the work of Duke freshman Vernon Carey, who finished with 10 rebounds, to go along with 25 points. He also drew eight fouls and helped make things as difficult as possible for Brooks around the rim defensively.
Brooks still ended up with 25 points, becoming the first Tar Heel since Antawn Jamison in 1998 to score 25 or more in four straight games. But he was just 9 of 22 from the floor and most of his nine offensive rebounds were his own misses.
Fellow big man Armando Bacot also had a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds. But other than Robinson’s three 3-pointers and 11 points, UNC got little or no production from its perimeter players. That includes point guard Cole Anthony, who was 4 of 14 from the floor and nine points.
By contrast, Duke made nearly 50 percent from beyond the three-point line — going 10 of 21 from long distance, Two of those treys — back to back daggers from Justin Robinson and Stanley — proved to be the last straw for the Tar Heels’ chances.
They extended the Blue Devils’ lead to double digits with 4½ minutes remaining after UNC had closed to within one and appeared to have momentum.
“It felt like everytime we got close, they just got a play that went their way,” Brandon Robinson said. “It was tough being right there and not getting over the hump.
“Vernon did a good job of posting up and scoring near the basket. Our main focus was to take that away. He was getting inside and scoring. Once they got it going outside it was just hard to stop them. They had a great game plan coming in and they executed it. Hats off to them.”
If there is one positive to the all-too-familar result for the Tar Heels (at least this year), it’s that the regular season is finally, mercifully over.
While UNC would need to run the table by winning five straight games and the tournament title in Greensboro to extend its season past the ACC tournament, the good news is that the slate is wiped clean and everyone starts over again from scratch.
And with three straight wins prior to Saturday’s loss, there’s at least a glimmer of hope for a miracle outcome.
“Pretty much for us, the new season starts Tuesday,” Anthony said, referring to the Tar Heels’ tournament opener against 11th-seeded Virginia Tech.
“We’ve got to focus and lock in because nobody wants our season to end,” added teammate Robinson. “It’s do-or-die starting Tuesday.”