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FILM REVIEW: How late-game hero ball doomed UNC men's basketball against Duke

This is our fifth men's basketball installment of Film Review, where we break down a particular aspect of the action to help you better understand what's happening on the court. Here's where to find our previous pieces from the football and men's basketball season.

With 6:50 left in the North Carolina men's basketball team's loss to Duke, Nate Britt stepped to the free-throw line. After missing his first free throw, Britt drained the second, putting the No. 10 Tar Heels up 71-70 over the No. 12 Blue Devils. Even though UNC led, it was anyone’s game — kenpom.com’s win probability model gave Duke a slight edge to win the game.

Sure enough, North Carolina (21-5, 12-2 ACC) would not lead again. Duke (20-5, 8-4 ACC) went on a 7-0 run — starting with a Luke Kennard jumper with 6:31 left in the second half — that swung the game in the Blue Devils' favor. At the five-minute mark, Duke’s win probability jumped above 65 percent and kept climbing in the waning moments of the game.

Let’s take a look at what happened over the course of that 7-0 run and what it says about North Carolina’s execution offensively in important, late-game possessions.


Kennard comes down the floor and hits a jumper, putting Duke back up 72-71.

6:03: Missed jumper by Nate Britt

After a fruitless first 20 seconds of offense, including a failed post-up attempt by Luke Maye, Britt resets at the top of the key and initiates UNC’s 10-second offense.

Britt accepts a screen from Maye, whose defender — versatile 6-foot-8 forward Jayson Tatum — switches onto Britt. Under pressure from a dwindling shot clock, and liking the potential mismatch against Tatum, Britt takes the pull-up jumper.

He misses Justin Jackson coming open from an off-ball screen on the far side of the court. He also misses the contested jumper.


Duke misses a shot, gets an offensive rebound and misses another. Kennedy Meeks gets the defensive rebound.

5:36: Missed floater by Joel Berry

This empty possession is one that head coach Roy Williams probably lives with. Trailing by one, Joel Berry attacks on a fast break.

Early in the possession he misses Jackson on an open look down the court — but that’s a tough, risky pass.

Instead, the 6-foot Berry attacks the basket...

...but he's bested by 6-foot-3 guard Frank Jackson, who blocks Berry’s attempt. The Tar Heels miss another opportunity to retake the lead.


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Tatum misses another jumper, and Berry gets the rebound and pushes again.

4:50: Missed free throw by Joel Berry

With his team still down by one, Berry attacks the basket, driving past Amile Jefferson and into the lane.

He picks up a foul, but it’s on the floor. North Carolina is in the bonus, so Berry goes to the line to shoot a one-and-one. If he makes the first, he'll have a chance at another.

Berry misses the front end — and with it, a chance to take the lead.


Tatum comes down the floor and nails a 3-pointer, putting Duke up 75-71.

4:05: Missed 3-pointer by Joel Berry

North Carolina starts another offensive possession slowly. Kenny Williams initiates things with a dribble drive and kick to Berry, who is about a step or two behind the 3-point line.

He shoots a contested jumper and misfires. On the other end, Grayson Allen slams home a big dunk, sending the Cameron Crazies into a frenzy. The 7-0 run is complete.


It’s that fast. The game was swung on a couple of empty possessions for the North Carolina offense and a couple of bad possessions from the UNC defense. Let’s focus on the offensive possessions and see what happened there.

As you can see above, the Tar Heels got out of their offensive rhythm and played hero ball instead of team basketball.

This happens to many basketball teams — just watch any NBA game late in the fourth quarter — but it can’t happen to North Carolina, because those one-on-one contested jump shots aren’t the best shots UNC can find.

Throughout the 7-0 stretch, the Tar Heels kept settling for contested, unassisted jump shots. The offense also became stagnant. Maybe it was the pressure of the game; maybe it was the noise in Cameron Indoor Stadium; maybe it was Britt and Berry trying to do a little too much. Maybe it was just good Duke defense and shots not falling. But the offense grinded to a halt.

This is a good lesson for UNC to learn now, though. Instead of leaning on one-on-one isolations in the final minutes, the Tar Heels should focus on getting the ball inside. Maye did his part by posting up and being big on the block, but Meeks also has to do his part. Over the course of this 7-0 run, Jefferson outplayed Meeks inside, cutting off his post-ups and getting in better position on the glass. While getting Isaiah Hicks back from injury will help, Meeks has to play bigger in the key moments.

UNC also needs to perform better from the free-throw line. Against the Blue Devils, North Carolina shot 10-for-18 from the charity stripe. Those eight points were, quite literally, the difference in the game. Missed free throws will only hurt more as the season progresses and the competition stiffens. 

The next possession after the Allen dunk capped off the 7-0 run, Kenny Williams took a contested jumper and was blocked. But Justin Jackson grabbed the loose ball and buried a 3-pointer from well behind the line, cutting Duke’s lead to three. Hero ball and tough shots like that works sometimes, but it’s a dangerous game to play. A couple of poor possessions in a row during crunch time can lose basketball games — and on Thursday, those possessions cost North Carolina.

@bauman_john

sports@dailytarheel.com