The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday February 4th

UNC Stalls, but Season Ends at ACCs

North Carolina reverted to its fabled Four Corners offense in the ACC quarterfinals, but it wasn't enough to stop the Blue Devils.

On March 8, 15 years after the introduction of the shot clock, an unconventional UNC team, facing Duke in the ACC Tournament's first round for the first time, turned back the clock. Coach Matt Doherty, desperate against a team that had beaten his by a combined 54 regular-season points, dusted off that chapter of UNC's playbook at the end of a season that has rewritten the record book.

His late-night plotting resulted in a closer contest. However, the modern day, seventh-seeded Tar Heels still couldn't catch the second-seeded and third-ranked Blue Devils with the old-school tactics. Duke pulled away late at the Charlotte Coliseum for a 60-48 victory and eventually won an ACC-record fourth consecutive championship with later routs of Wake Forest and N.C. State.

"You don't want to have to play this way, but it was our best chance to win," Doherty said. "This week our team dedicated to changing our style of play, and again these kids listened and believed and trusted and about pulled it off."

Instead, Duke pulled off its 10th win against North Carolina (8-20) in its last 11 attempts and knocked the Tar Heels from the conference tourney for the third time in the last four years. The previous two were in the championship games by 49 total points in 1999 and 2001.

Doherty said he wanted to try to slow down the regular-season finale at Cameron Indoor Stadium but didn't have enough time to prepare. After that 93-68 loss, he and his coaching staff pulled an all-nighter before introducing the new strategy first to Jason Capel and then to the rest of the team. Capel had heard plenty about the Four Corners his first two years in Chapel Hill.

"Playing for Coach (Phil) Ford, he's going to tell you about himself every day," Capel said. "Trust me, we've heard all the Four Corners stuff -- holding the ball, and if they had a one-point lead and he had the ball the game was over. Playing for him, trust me, you heard about his whole career every day."

The Tar Heels played a 21st-century variation of Four Corners keepaway that appeared more like running suicides in practice than running a play. They ran in pairs back and forth from the baseline to halfcourt, handing the ball off and making short passes as necessary to run down the clock and maintain possession.

The ploy got the Blue Devils, now 31-3 after Saturday's win against Notre Dame, to chase them around for a while, but eventually Duke got wise, moved into a zone of sorts and sometimes just let the point guard hold the ball to the tune of loud boos from bored fans.

With 15 or fewer seconds remaining on the shot clock, UNC ran a series of plays deriving from an old play called the Blind Pig. The Blue Devils looked puzzled, and the crowd seemed confused, booing at first but then cheering for the underdog Tar Heels. UNC led four times early and trailed by six at halftime, by three midway through the second half and by five with 4:35 to go.

"We did very well; we were patient," said Kris Lang, who was UNC's lone double-figure scorer with 14 in his last collegiate game. He totaled 14 points in the previous Duke matchups, but the fruit-fly offense freed him up more often. "When the crowd was booing, we pulled it out and we waited. We executed well."

The fans weren't the only ones frustrated with the style of play. The exasperated Blue Devils had something to say on the court about the Tar Heels' tactics.

"They started talking to us," Jawad Williams said. "We just kept running around and making them chase us. It was funny to look at them and see how mad they were getting. They called us everything. Everything."

Duke's agitated players repeatedly smacked the floor to stay alert and intimidating in their defensive crouches while waiting out UNC's ball-holding.

The slowed play affected the Blue Devils on the offensive end as well, taking the game out of the faster rhythm to which they're accustomed. Duke shot 39.1 percent to UNC's 51.7 percent but took 17 more shots. Still, it set a season-low in points by 13. The Tar Heels turned the ball over 17 times, leading to 24 points, while the Blue Devils had just three miscues.

"I felt sure that if we played at our pace that we'd have a chance to win toward the end," said guard Adam Boone. "We had our opportunities, we just didn't make the plays that they made."

With less than four minutes to go, Jason Williams deflected a pass and then rapidly chased down and dunked the ball from the left side with his right hand. Williams said at the press conference that he didn't recall the play. Coach Mike Krzyzewski said it was one of the best plays any of his players have made at Duke.

On the next possession, the Blue Devils delayed themselves, and Williams hit an open 3. Then Chris Duhon nailed a deep bomb as the shot clock expired for an 11-point advantage at the 1:16 mark.

The Tar Heels went home, their season over with no NCAA tournament for the first time since 1974, and the Blue Devils moved into a final No. 1 ranking and on with their quest to repeat as national champions. But they moved on impressed.

"That was a heck of a basketball game," Krzyzewski said. "That is a tournament game. North Carolina was superb. Immense credit should be given to them for their preparation for this game. It was a well-conceived, well-drilled game plan. Matt had his team ready to play, and I thought it was one of the finer games played of the 30 games we've played. Both teams playing so well, hard, clean.

"It was a classic game, I thought, and we feel very fortunate to win and go on."

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