Its official — North Carolina is back.
And yes, I know, that is a weird thing to say after the No. 20 Tar Heels blew a 16-point lead to No. 5 Duke on Wednesday night, getting outscored 50-30 in the second half of a 79-73 loss. Its even weirder when you consider that Kyle Singler, the preseason national player of the year, was just 3-17 from the floor.
But it’s true.
Wednesday night’s performance confirmed it for me.
Duke might not be an invincible as we all thought they were before Kyrie Irving injured his toe, but even without their star freshman, the Blue Devils are a very good basketball team. They are even better playing at home, especially when the Tar Heels are in town.
Which is what made the first half of this game so impressive.
For the first 20 minutes, the Tar Heels looked as good as any team in the nation. They played outstanding defense, they dominated the paint, and their fast break was as potent as the one led by Ty Lawson in UNC’s 2009 championship season. The Heels flat out wiped the floor with one of the best teams in the nation. On the road. In the sport’s biggest rivalry. On ESPN.
That’s impressive, and it proves that this team has the ability to play with anyone in the country. That they are good enough to make it to, and possibly past, the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
But this is still a young North Carolina team. Not just in age, but in experience. Their starting point guard has been a starting point guard for just five games. He has played only two games without a platoon at the position. All told, there are six freshmen and sophomores in their rotation. Tyler Zeller is playing his first injury-free season, Justin Knox is a senior but in his first year with the Heels, and Justin Watts is a life-long role player.
For every member of the Tar Heels, it’s safe to say that this was the biggest game where they have played a significant role in their collegiate career. Zeller and Watts were on the 2009 title team, but they played very limited roles. Knox played at Alabama for three years. The sophomore class experienced an NIT season their rookie year. The Heels have played on national television this season, but none of those games — not against Illinois, not against Kentucky, not in Puerto Rico — can possibly match the level of intensity and public interest of a Duke-UNC game just three days after the nation’s consciousness officially switches to hoops.
Just like you have to develop a jump shot or your post game, you have to develop the ability to perform under pressure and play in the clutch. Winning is a learned skill.
Duke has it. Duke’s learned it. The Blue Devils, after all, are the reigning national champions and returned a majority of the core from that team.
Including Nolan Smith.
Simply put, Smith was sensational in the second half against the Tar Heels. He scored 22 of his career-high 34 points. He penetrated at will against a better-than-you-think Carolina defense. He controlled the tempo of the game, which took UNC out of their rhythm. Most importantly, he made the plays early in the half that gave the Blue Devils hope and sparked their comeback.
While Singler struggled, Seth Curry picked up his slack. Steph’s younger brother scored 18 of his 22 points in the second half, including 14 points in a 33-12 surge that gave the Heels a 60-55 lead. Even the Plumlees, who were, for the most part, dogged by Zeller and John Henson tonight, were tough in the paint during that stretch, getting some key rebounds.
Carolina was never able to mount an answer.
Part of the issue was that UNC got away from getting the ball inside. Zeller had 24 points and 13 boards on the night, while Henson added 14 points and 12 boards. They settled for too many jumpers. Marshall was no longer able to find teammates when he penetrated. Since Carolina wasn’t getting any stops, they weren’t able to get out in transition.
The bottom line is this — down the stretch, Duke made the plays they had to make to win. North Carolina didn’t.
Duke was experienced enough and calm enough to execute under pressure. North Carolina wasn’t.
The Tar Heels looked like a Final Four team in the first half. They looked like the inexperienced, NIT team that lost by 20 to Georgia Tech in the second half.
But as this group continues to gel, to learn, and gain confidence, expect the Heels to trend towards the former, not the latter.