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The Daily Tar Heel

'If that’s gonna go in, hat’s off to them': UNC can't get over hump in Duke loss

Duke first-year guard Cassius Stanley (2) dunks the ball in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday, March 7, 2020. UNC lost to Duke 89-76.

DURHAM, N.C. — Saturday brought a different kind of pain for the North Carolina basketball team.

No, not the buzzer-beating, dagger to the chest kind, the kind with which these Tar Heels have become all too familiar. Not the agony of dramatic losses against Clemson, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Virginia and Notre Dame.

Certainly not the kind of pain that this team felt the first time out against Duke on Feb. 8, in which not one, but two last-second shots sealed UNC’s fate and made the team’s best start-to-finish performance all for naught.

Rather, Saturday night’s regular season finale against the No. 12 Blue Devils brought a slower and, all things considered, perhaps more frustrating kind of heartbreak. While the Tar Heels — who entered Cameron Indoor Stadium riding a three-game win streak — trailed by single digits for virtually all of the game, they tied it just twice and never led in an 89-76 loss.

“Every time we made a play, they either got a call that went their way or a play that went their way,” senior guard Brandon Robinson said. “We’ve just gotta learn from it.”

Duke graduate forward Justin Robinson (no relation), in his first and likely only career start as a result of his team’s Senior Night, was most emblematic of the exasperation. He logged a career-high 13 points on four made 3-pointers; the first one went down two minutes into the game after, yes, ricocheting off the backboard. 

Robinson gave a shrug that was more gee-whiz than Jordanesque, as his dad, NBA legend David Robinson, celebrated in the stands. If the shot had come at the final buzzer, it would’ve put an impossibly well-fitting bow on the season for North Carolina.

“I didn’t realize he was working on his bank shot,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “It’s been that kind of year for us.”

Postgame, two different Tar Heels mentioned another Robinson backbreaker: a 3-pointer that took an ugly bounce off the side of the rim and fell in, stretching the lead back out to four. Just prior, a 9-2 run to start the second half had North Carolina blazing a comeback trail. But that’d be as close as the team would get.

“It’s funny, cause I was watching film, and I think he did that against N.C. State, too,” guard Cole Anthony, who finished with nine points on 4-14 shooting, said. “That was a moment where I was just like, ‘Dang.’”

“If that’s gonna go in,” forward Justin Pierce added, “hat’s off to them.”

Garrison Brooks had 26 points and 13 rebounds, becoming the first UNC player to score 25-plus in four straight games since Antawn Jamison. But even he wasn’t immune to the frustration. With less than five minutes to go, the junior forward missed a contested layup, then had the follow-up rejected by Robinson, who finished with four blocks. 

On the other end, the Junior Admiral nailed his last triple of the game, putting the lead at 10 and the nail in the coffin for North Carolina.

“Credit to them, man,” Pierce said. “Every time we cut it close, they hit some big time shots.”

Where do the Tar Heels go from here? Williams’ team followed up the first loss to Duke with a 74-57 humbling at the hands of Wake Forest. This time, a subpar outing means the end of the line. North Carolina will have to win five games in five games — starting Tuesday night against Virginia Tech — to steal an ACC Tournament title and NCAA bid. 

The Tar Heels aren’t short on painful memories this season. The key to any sort of miracle run will be figuring out how to respond to the latest one.

“Last time after we played Duke, we came out and laid an egg,” Robinson said. “But at this point, it’s do or die for us. We’ve gotta focus and lock in, because nobody wants the season to end.”


@DTHSports |

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