Entering Sunday’s regular-season finale against North Carolina, Duke controlled its own destiny. A win would guarantee at least a share of the ACC regular-season title and a No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. However, the Tar Heels presented one of the most dangerous challenges in sports: a team with nothing to lose and everything to gain from beating its archrival.
The visitors played spoiler, and a sellout crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium witnessed the Blue Devils’ first home loss of the season as they fell 45-41.
Now typical for Duke’s suffocating defense, the Blue Devils held North Carolina to its lowest scoring total of the season. However, Sunday also marked Duke’s fourth-lowest scoring performance in history, its 41 points the fewest since scoring 41 in a loss against Florida State in March 2019. While the reason Duke finished the regular season 24-5 was its defense, the Blue Devils fell short of the title because of their inability to score when it mattered most. In other words, defense alone cannot win championships.
The reason for Duke’s offensive struggles began in the half-court, where North Carolina’s pressure defense forced 25 turnovers. The game got going with an Alyssa Ustby steal which led to a fast-break layup, and the Tar Heels amassed 16 points off Duke mistakes when all was said and done. Head coach Kara Lawson tried putting nearly every combination of rotation players on the floor in an attempt to break through the Tar Heel front, but aside from 9-0 and 6-0 scoring runs, the game featured a slew of missed opportunities.
The Blue Devils failed to convert on several transition chances, especially early in the game. Celeste Taylor and Shayeann Day-Wilson, two of Duke’s leading scorers, combined to shoot just 4-for-17 from the field, and each passed up multiple fast-break opportunities to either pull the ball out or throw an ill-advised pass to a teammate.
Throughout the season, buckets created from forcing turnovers on defense have been a major component in Duke’s scoring. Coming into Sunday’s matchup, Duke averaged 11 fast-break points per game, and the only two games all year that the Blue Devils failed to score on the break both came against North Carolina. Finding success in transition can often relieve pressure faced in the half-court. Instead, the Tar Heels effectively removed this entire area of the game, forcing unproductive possessions that only compounded Duke’s woes.
“We had a plethora of transition opportunities that we did not finish on, where we had the advantage. Whether it was two on one, three on two, we turned it over, or we missed layups and things like that,” Lawson said after the game. “It wasn't one player, but some of this is just converting the plays. I thought we got good looks, and we didn't make them.”
Most teams that go into halftime with only 20 points find themselves looking for an answer to a deficit. The Blue Devils did so with a four-point lead. North Carolina looked just as uncomfortable on offense and finished the game shooting just 34.1%, and it appeared as though Duke would find an answer in the second half and ride the support of a sellout crowd to a victory.
The Blue Devils' defense continued to keep them into the game through the fourth quarter, which Duke opened with a 7-0 scoring run that, at the moment, seemed to be exactly what it needed to pull away. However, North Carolina followed that up with a 16-5 run to end the game, fueled by nine fourth-quarter free throws. The Blue Devils, who did a fantastic job all game of stopping the Tar Heels from making field goals, gave the visitors opportunities to steal the game without needing to get by the defense.
In the game’s deciding moment, with Duke trailing by two with less than a minute to go, North Carolina guard Deja Kelly drew a foul from Day-Wilson. Kelly converted both from the charity stripe, sealing the win for the Tar Heels.
“In games like this, the way to buffer if you're struggling in the half-court, is to get transition opportunities, or get to the free-throw line,” Lawson said. "So, [North Carolina] did a good job of buffering a poor offensive night by getting to the free-throw line.”
Sunday was not the first time Duke’s offense got in the way of its defense’s domination. In its loss to Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils only mustered 45 points on 34.0% shooting. And they scored just 50 points against Miami, a game the Blue Devils won on account of their defense. In ACC play, they eclipsed 70 points just twice while managing a second-place finish. That clearly points to the strength of their defense, but it also highlights a glaring weakness.
As the postseason progresses and the level of competition increases, this offensive output simply may not be enough. Duke has shown its ability to beat good teams behind its defense, so much so that the Blue Devils have positioned themselves to be a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament. But they will need to find a way to score if they are to make a run in the upcoming ACC tournament or the NCAA tournament.
“They're frustrated and disappointed," Lawson said. "... Every time we've lost this year, they've done a great job of snapping back, not wallowing in it and just being ready to give a good effort."
As it so happens, barring any upsets, the Blue Devils' first matchup in the ACC tournament Friday will be against a familiar foe: No. 7-seed North Carolina, which plays the winner of No. 10-seed Clemson and No. 15-seed Pittsburgh in Thursday's second round.
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