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The Daily Tar Heel

Lack of urgency plagues UNC men's basketball once again as regular season closes against Duke

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UNC junior guard Caleb Love (2) hides his face behind a towel during the men’s basketball game against Duke in the Dean E. Smith Center on Saturday, March 4, 2023. UNC fell to Duke 62-57.

Sitting at the podium dejected after the team’s 62-57 loss to Duke – its 11th single-digit loss of the season and second to its Tobacco Road rival – head coach Hubert Davis was asked about his team’s mindset heading into this week’s ACC Tournament. 

Given the Tar Heels’ dismal 19-12 record that features – count ‘em – one Quad One win, many players in the locker room expressed the belief that they likely need to win all four games to clinch an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. When asked about his thoughts, Davis provided a different type of response.

“I don’t know where they get that information,” Davis said. “I’m not a narrative guy, all I know is that on Wednesday we play the winner of Boston College and Louisville.”

On the surface, Davis’ thoughts seem optimistic. UNC technically controls its own postseason fate, and its ceiling seems to be as high as any team in the country.

But in reality, minutes after falling to a Duke team that recorded four assists and shot just under 38 percent from the floor, the message speaks volumes for a team whose lack of urgency is still a common factor in losses  — despite the fact that the season is on the brink of utter collapse.    

Junior guard RJ Davis said that, since the start of the season, UNC was aware of the expectations of being the No. 1 team.

"Just the noise that comes with it," he said. "I think we deserved that based on the run we made last year but sometimes it puts too much pressure on yourself and you try to meet these expectations instead of going out there and playing freely."

Like many games this season, UNC had its chances to win late. Despite shooting a season-low 30.4 percent from the field, the Tar Heels trailed by just one point with 50 seconds to play. But, despite needing a stop, junior guard Caleb Love allowed Duke's Jeremy Roach to beat him off the dribble before finishing a scooping layup inside.

Moments later, when Duke’s Kyle Filipowski missed the front end of a one-and-one with 19 seconds remaining, Love dribbled to the left wing and pulled up with a prayer that would have tied it. 

Standing just inches away from the spot, he drained a legacy-defining shot in last year’s Final Four, but this attempt never had much of a chance. It awkwardly careened off the back rim, then Duke secured the rebound and made a fast break layup to ice the game.

"It just came down to 'Stop, score, stop' which is what we preach in practice, especially when it gets tight in games, and I think we just didn't execute that very well," RJ Davis said.

Saturday’s contest was almost a carbon copy of the previous matchup between the two teams, as the young Blue Devils showed more resiliency and hunger than the veteran Tar Heels in the late stages.

In both matchups, Duke closed the game on a 6-0 run and held UNC without a field goal in the last four minutes of play, highlighting the Tar Heels' lack of cohesion in critical moments. Senior forward Armando Bacot, reflecting in postgame interviews, said that Duke was the more disciplined team.

"They were just the tougher team in those situations," he said. "Just locking in, getting those stops and not allowing second-chance points."

After weeks of preaching each game as a must-win affair and using weighted vests in practice to symbolize the heavy burden this team has had to carry, the message will ring most true at the ACC Tournament, which will likely be UNC’s only lifeline to salvaging a lost season. 

Despite Hubert Davis’ beliefs, the team’s underwhelming 1-9 record against Quad One opponents gives the Tar Heels just a 20.2 percent chance of securing an at-large bid, per Bart Torvik’s T-Ranketology metric. Truthfully, those microscopic odds would be even lower if North Carolina wasn't measured on last year's success or its big-name recognition. 

In the friendly confines of Greensboro, N.C., the Tar Heels will have one final opportunity to craft its resume. Otherwise, they will become the first preseason No. 1 team to miss the Big Dance since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. 

And if they fall flat, it will simply be an extension of everything that weighed them down for the past few months. 

"S--- I'm trying to go win all four," Bacot said. "It's all we can do."

@hunternelson_1 

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com 

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