North Carolina proved a lot in its loss to Duke

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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.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK
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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times/USA TODAY NETWORK
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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

Joe Rondone/USA TODAY NETWORK
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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.