CHAPEL HILL — If ever there was a game in which the North Carolina basketball team figured to be motivated and ready to play from the jump, this was it.
The rivalry. Coach K’s final trip to the Smith Center. An opportunity to finally add a Quad 1 win to its postseason resume.
It was all there. The only thing missing was the Tar Heels.
Coach Hubert Davis’ team misfired on 12 of its first 15 shots and had no answer for the Duke duo of AJ Griffin and Paolo Banchero, falling behind by 23 points after only 10 minutes and never fully recovering on the way to a lopsided 87-67 loss on Saturday.
“We got punched in the mouth,” UNC senior Leaky Black said. “We thought it was going to be easy, and then a few minutes into the game we started panicking and started going back to the stuff we were doing at the beginning of the season. That made it tough on us. We’re not going to win games like that.”
In fact, both the result and the performance that led to it were familiar to the Tar Heels (16-7, 8-4 ACC).
Each of their seven losses this season have followed the same unsightly pattern. It begins with an early double-digit deficit that forces them to spend the rest of the game battling, unsuccessfully, to get back into contention.
All of them have come against Quad 1 opponents and have been decided by an average of 18.6 points.
The fact that this time it happened against a hated rival only added to their disappointment and frustration.
“Every loss has been a blowout for a reason,” Black said. “It’s not that we’re not prepared because (coach Hubert) Davis does a great job giving us a game plan. Every big game we feel like it’s going to be easy because we’ve got North Carolina on our chest, but it’s the complete opposite.
“We’re going to get everybody’s best game, especially Duke. They’re going to come out and compete. I don’t know why we didn’t come out and play harder.”
Effort, however, wasn’t UNC’s most pressing issue against the Blue Devils (19-3, 9-2). Neither was its early offensive woes.
The real trouble came in trying to match up defensively against Duke’s bigger, more physical lineup.
Davis elected to start the game with his best player, Armando Bacot, attempting to guard Blue Devils’ star Paolo Banchero — the front-runner for both ACC Player and Rookie of the Year honors.
It’s a strategy that backfired when Bacot picked up two fouls within the game’s first six possessions.
The Tar Heels were already behind 13-2 at the time. Eight minutes later, shortly after the 6-foot-10 senior returned from the bench, the margin had ballooned to 31-8.
“They shot it well to start and kind of got us out of a rhythm offensively,” said graduate forward Brady Manek. “Armando getting those two fouls, that definitely took a toll on us early.”
To the Tar Heels’ credit, they didn’t let Duke’s early haymaker become a knockout blow.
Thanks to Bacot’s ability to stay away from further foul trouble and Manek’s hot shooting, UNC slowly began to chip away at the big deficit. Between the two, they accounted for 23 of their team’s 28 points during the first half.
Manek, in particular, was instrumental in helping the Tar Heels stay within striking distance. With the Oklahoma transfer making five of his first 11 field goal attempts, including four 3-pointers, while scoring 15 of his team-leading 21 points, UNC was able to close the gap to a manageable 11 — at 39-29 — by the halftime break.
It was a development Davis said had him “really encouraged” at halftime. But it turned out to be as close as the Tar Heels would get.
Griffin scored the first 10 points of the second half as part of a 12-0 opening run that blew the game open again.
This time for good.
“One of the things we talked about and I was expecting was us to throw the first punch in the second half and really put some life into this crowd and our team,” the UNC coach said. “I really think that the difference was their response at the beginning of the game and their response at the beginning of the second half.
“They just took it to us on both ends of the floor at the beginning of both halves and we were just playing catchup the entire game from there.”
Griffin, a 6-foot-6 guard, finished the game with 27 points on 11-of-17 shooting (3-6 3-pointers). His hot shooting success was, at least in part, a product of UNC’s effort to contain the bigger, more heralded Banchero.
Black, the Tar Heels’ top defender, succeeded in holding Banchero to a quiet 13 points. But that left Griffin with a mismatch that he happily exploited.
“At the end of the day, we didn’t have an answer for Paolo and AJ, except from a defensive standpoint, for Leaky,” Davis said. “Unfortunately we couldn’t divide Leaky into two players.”
Since cloning Black isn’t an option, Davis will have to figure out other ways of improving his team’s performance in its most challenging games.
And time is running out.
The Tar Heels have only three more Quad 1 opportunities remaining in the regular season — road tests at Clemson, Virginia Tech and a rematch with Duke. Asked what UNC needs to do in order to break its frustrating pattern in those games, Black was at a loss for an answer.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “I’m not sure.”