DURHAM — It just wasn’t enough.
A 12-game win streak, 18 second-half points from Marcus Paige, A season-high 59.4 field-goal percentage.
None of that could overcome a poor defensive effort in front of a raucous crowd hungry to avenge No. 14 North Carolina’s eight-point defeat of No. 4 Duke 16 days earlier.
This time, the Tar Heels couldn’t put together another rallying effort slide and fell victim to rushed shots and poor decision making in a 93-81 loss to Duke (23-8, 13-5 ACC) in the regular season finale.
“I think we played really hard with our heart and competed,” coach Roy Williams said. “But we didn’t do as good a job with our brain as we did with our heart, but I think we have a competitive bunch of kids there.”
Despite a 19-point deficit late in the second half, the Tar Heels (23-8, 13-5) closed the gap to single-digits after Marcus Paige’s 4-point play with 2 minutes 50 seconds remaining.
The Tar Heels had cracked their escape window. One more bucket and they could throw it open and leap out.
With fewer than three minutes to play, James Michael McAdoo stole the ball from Quinn Cook.
The window opened a few more inches. The loud crowd of Cameron Crazies temporarily dulled.
Paige was poised to cut the lead to five with a 3-pointer. But as the ball rattled around the rim, precariously bobbling between a made field goal and a miss, Brice Johnson leapt up and slammed the ball through the rim.
Instead of a six-point game, however, Johnson was whistled for offensive interference because the ball was on its way back down over the cylinder, and Duke was rewarded with the ball.
Twice more, the Tar Heel defense forced Blue Devil turnovers in the final two minutes, but each time J.P. Tokoto missed the close-range shot.
And just like that, UNC’s cracked window of opportunity slammed shut.
“The offensive interference that would have cut it to five, that hurts,” Paige said. “It’s kind of a momentum killer but even after that, it was single digits, and we got two straight steals, missed a layup at the rim and then rushed a shot. That could have made it interesting, could have made it a one-possession, two-possession game and really changed the dynamic of the entire game.
“That was tough but honestly we dug ourselves too big of a hole with our defensive effort. We can’t give up as many points as we did and expect to win.”
UNC never led Saturday night, and in the first seven minutes of the game, UNC dug itself in a 17-4 hole.
The Tar Heels committed six damning turnovers during Duke’s early run and missed five of their first seven field goal attempts.
But the Tar Heels fought back and whittled Duke’s lead to a mere two points minutes before halftime.
A dominant 13-4 run and six second-half 3-pointers by the Blue Devils rendered UNC’s comeback effort useless, and in the end, the Tar Heels’ heart and determination simply couldn’t make up for their shortcomings. But they’ll have a chance to redeem themselves when they head to Greensboro next week as the No. 4 seed in the ACC tournament.
“We’re going to have some trials and tribulations,” McDonald said. “We just understood that. We just kept pushing … We just felt like if we kept pushing something was going to happen, and we were able to get the lead down to three, and they just took off from then.
“It shows that this team is not going to back down, even if it’s not going our way, we’re still going to fight no matter what.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.