Go, go, go. That’s essentially what the gesture means. Three quick, counter-clockwise rotations of Roy Williams' left hand from his vantage point on the sideline.
The North Carolina men’s basketball coach always wants his team to push the tempo so it can get into its run-and-gun offense and find the light at the end of the tunnel by catching opponents sleeping.
But sometimes it’s too late to hurry. Sometimes teams fall into slumbers of lackadaisicalness that give rise to mental miscues. These lapses slow things down, rendering runs hard to come by and deficits even harder at which to chip away.
It was too late for UNC (21-10, 11-7 ACC) to hurry in this moment — 19 seconds remaining in the team’s 84-77 loss to No. 3 Duke (28-3, 15-3) on Saturday night. The No. 19 Tar Heels trailed by five, the game virtually over already. But Williams still twirled his hand, still urging freshman wing Justin Jackson to go, go, go.
Stop and go, stop and go, Jackson went, never pushing the ball full speed until he eventually just picked up his dribble after half court.
That’s kind of how the night went for the Tar Heels, who were stopped in their tracks in the second half.
“It comes down to just wanting it more,” said Jackson, who finished the night with 14 points. “They made plays down the stretch that we didn’t and that’s why we lost. It’s as simple as that. The first half we came out and we played pretty hard. The second half, the start of it, we played hard and got lackadaisical. Whenever you’re lackadaisical against a team like that, they take advantage of it.”
Duke took advantage at the 14:40 mark of the second half, to be exact. The Blue Devils pieced together a 14-2 run against a UNC team that claimed a 33-31 halftime lead.
During the run that spanned 3:20, Duke took its first lead after trailing for more than 18 minutes over the course of both halves. After the Blue Devils did so with 11:53 left in the game, they never again trailed.
Missed shot after missed shot. Foul after foul. Turnover after turnover. In the second half, UNC gave the ball away 11 times. Duke had 10 total for the game.
“We didn’t do the little things. We turned it over in that one stretch,” said junior forward Brice Johnson, UNC’s sole bright spot down low on Saturday with 17 points and seven rebounds. Sophomore big man Kennedy Meeks had a game-high nine rebounds, but a season-low two points on just 1-for-7 shooting from the floor.
“If we don’t do that, we’d probably be up. Trying to do too much I guess," Johnson continued. "Trying to do a little too much passing or careless passes. That’s just throwing things away for us.”
In the second half, Duke’s backcourt double teams — the skillful work of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who was honored on the Smith Center court before the game for reaching 1,000 career wins earlier in the season — caused UNC’s offense problems.
Yes, the Tar Heels shot 58 percent in the second half, but they only took 24 shots while making 14 of them. In the first half, UNC shot 14-for-34 from the field.
“We took a couple quick shots,” said sophomore guard Marcus Paige, who tied a season-high with 23 points. “We weren’t complacent or comfortable like our seven-point lead but we didn’t stick to what got us there.
Then came the turnovers.
“We rushed a couple of shots,” Paige added. “We had the momentum and everything so we rushed a couple of passes, got a little errant and they capitalized on every single one of those.”
A seven-point lead early in the second half vanished into the nothingness that results from turnovers, poor shot selection and a lack of personal drive down the stretch.
On Saturday, just like that, the Tar Heels appeared as if they couldn't go anymore. Reality emerged in the form of another loss to Duke, just weeks after falling to the Blue Devils, 92-90, in overtime at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
With the regular season now over, UNC now shifts its focus to the postseason — a No. 5 seed in the ACC Tournament and a sense of uncertainty heading into the NCAA Tournament.
But before his players can go, go, go, Roy Williams knows they'll have to stop and think.
"We know what the problem is — maintaining the focus," he said. "We’ve gotta do a better job of it."
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