Duke-UNC: The Hangover

Well, s—.  That wasn’t fun.

The pain from a loss like Saturday’s is completely different than from a buzzer-beater loss–not better or worse, just different.  A buzzer-beater loss is vivid, exciting, and intense–you can look back to one or two plays and question the team’s strategy: “Why did Andre Dawkins help off of Michael Snaer?  Why didn’t Tyler Zeller put his arms up and prevent a 3-pointer?” It’s a brutal, heart-breaking way to lose, but you have that belief in your team right until the final buzzer.  The margin between winning and losing is so thin that it’s–literally–awesome, and the final result will, in some way or another, shock you.

But losses like Saturday?  There’s no excitement, no sweaty palms, no nail-biting.  No joy or belief that your team just needs one play right here to pull out a win.  No crushing disappointment at the final buzzer, just gratitude that there’s no coda to drag out your pain further.  Losses like that are just pure sadness and anger, wrapped in a bundle of unmet expectations and topped with a bow of rising frustration.

Unfortunately, that lack of excitement doesn’t make the result hurt less.  For a game with so much buildup to be basically out of reach after the first five minutes (UNC was up 18-5, and Duke was never within 10 after) is pretty much unconscionable.  The crowd still sensed, though, that if the Blue Devils quickly regained their composure, all might not be lost.  Instead, Duke remained scoreless for the next three and a half minutes, essentially entombing themselves with the bricks they were tossing up.  The start was an emotional dagger–a clear reminder that regardless of the result in Chapel Hill, this UNC team is much more talented than Duke, and if the Heels play to their potential, the Blue Devils have no real shot to win.

Ironically, Duke probably lost this game when they pulled out the most improbable of comebacks three and a half weeks ago.  In that game, Duke was coming off its home loss to Miami and was furious–they came out with hunger and intensity and rolled to a fast start.  This start allowed them to hang around enough to pull out a win at the end of the game when, well, you know what happened.  But that ending only served to fuel Carolina’s fire for the rematch–the Tar Heels knew that they had outplayed Duke last time, but they didn’t have anything to show for it, and they had to listen to the talking heads pimp the Blue Devils and watch as Duke rose up the rankings.  So last night, they made it clear at the start who was superior and never allowed the game to be in doubt.  Similarly, Duke didn’t have a recent loss to rebound from, nor could they use the previous matchup with UNC as motivation.  Thus, as Carolina sprinted out of the starting blocks, Duke stumbled.

Analyzing this game is pretty simple. Duke had a few things it had to do to win–shoot well (especially from beyond the arc) and compete respectably on the glass.  It simply didn’t do either of these.  Duke shot 41 percent for the game, but just 9-35 in the first half.  From three, Duke was 2-11 in the first and only 29 percent overall: a far cry from its 14-36 performance in Chapel Hill.  The team didn’t crack 60% from the free throw line.  On the glass, the Blue Devils were almost doubled up (42-22), and they allowed ten offensive rebounds–in the first half.  P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo put the Duke big men on some posters with some vicious put-back dunks.  Of Carolina’s 38 first half possessions, Duke only got stops on 13 of them.  It was simply a disaster.

Cheering from the student section, I could tell the fans were desperately trying to seize upon every little bit of good play by the Blue Devils–each bucket and subsequent stop, each fleeting four-point run. (My theory that perhaps the energy of Cameron Indoor psychs out these particular players and contributes to their slow starts–this team, and Austin especially, seems to feed better off negative emotion from the crowd.  Or it may just be time for the Crazies to change some of their shtick, because it is clearly less effective this year than in the past.) Although this Duke team has many shortcomings, giving up early is not one of them, and most Duke fans couldn’t help thinking that another miracle win was a possibility.  But UNC was far too good yesterday, and they always silenced us before too long with a crucial basket or defensive play.

This has been one of the weirdest Duke seasons in recent memory, a roller coaster ride across dizzying peaks and valleys.  I guess it’s fitting that the regular season concludes with an obliteration at home following Duke’s longest win streak of the year.  It’s not too surprising that the squad’s inconsistency and slow starts would catch up to them once more.  That doesn’t really ease the pain, though, and I can’t wait to leave this game in the rearview.  As Miles Plumlee said in his Senior Night post-game speech, “It’s not over.”  No, it’s not, Miles.  No, it’s not.

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