NEW YORK—As much as it seemed like North Carolina dumped the ball into the high post with ease Friday night, Duke didn't lose the ACC semifinals because of its defense.
The Tar Heels' 74 points were their fewest against any opponent aside from Duke since January, and they shot worse than 40 percent from the field, misfiring on a lot of those chances from the middle of the zone.
The Blue Devils lost because they attempted 17 fewer shots than North Carolina, in part due to 18 turnovers, matching their most since Jan. 15. The giveaways stalled any attempt for Duke to gain momentum until a late run that came up just short.
"We're not going to win a game against a team that caliber if we turned it over 18 times," Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We got a chance to work our zone against probably two of the best teams that would work against us [this tournament], and we gave up 70 and 74 points. So we'll take a look at it and see what we can learn from that, but overall that should have been good enough to win if we don't turn it over like we did."
The turnovers were not confined to a single player, with three Blue Devils coughing it up at least four times. Freshman point guard Trevon Duval was the primary culprit with five, and after he exited with a right ankle injury less than three minutes into the game, he didn't look the same upon returning.
All five of Duval's giveaways were a result of steals by the Tar Heels, and when North Carolina gained possession in live-ball situations, its opponents' mistakes played right into its hands, turning into transition opportunities before Duke's zone had time to get set up.
"We’ll go certain time periods where we don’t score and they score, or we’re not playing too well," Duval said. "It’s just me trying to find a guy or get some type of movement, some type of energy on the offensive end."
Duval was far from the only offender, though. When he exited the game for four minutes due to the injury, Alex O'Connell did not perform any better in his place, throwing a low-post entry pass right into the hands of Tar Heel guard Theo Pinson, who was standing directly in front of Marvin Bagley III.
Bagley also had his pocket picked multiple times when he brought the ball down in the post, finishing with four giveaways.
The Blue Devils set the tone for their stagnant offensive showing by coming out of the gates at a snail's pace, making just one shot from the field in the first 10 minutes and seven turnovers in that same span. Although Duke eventually dug out of that double-digit hole to go in front 27-26 later in the half, its lead only lasted 18 seconds.
The Blue Devils' 13-to-18 assist-to-turnover ratio was identical to their number in the ugly loss to the Hokies almost two weeks ago. Compare that to North Carolina's 24 assists on its 28 made field goals and just 13 turnovers, and the difference in the two sides' ball movement proved to be the deciding factor in the game.
"We were a little bit just too fast at the start," senior captain Grayson Allen said. "Defensively, me and Trey up top needed to do a little bit better job of trying to keep it out of the middle, and then offensively just working the ball, relaxing a little bit and just playing basketball. Once we settled in, that's when we came back in the first half and got the lead, or narrowed down the lead."
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
After the Tar Heels stretched their lead out to 16, the Blue Devils made one last push to climb into the game, needing a near-flawless final five minutes to come all the way back. But when Duke got its first chance with the ball in a one-possession game with plenty of time left—25 seconds on the clock—it wasted the opportunity in a fitting way with its final turnover of the night. Allen charged into Kenny Williams camped out under the basket for an offensive foul while he was trying to take the ball strong to the hoop to cut it to one.
When Duke benefitted from a Tar Heel to get another desperation chance in the final 10 seconds, Allen did not have the time or the space to get a clean look at the basket.
"We kind of played the game in different stages today, and we have to play it at the same stage throughout," Krzyzewski said. "These two games will help us, even though we lost tonight and could have played better. But they make you not play well."