Remember this time last year when North Carolina beating Duke in the regular season finale served as a springboard for its Final Four run?
The Tar Heels’ 62-57 loss to the Blue Devils on Saturday makes it unlikely that it will happen again. A more pressing matter: Saturday’s loss virtually assures that they need to win the ACC tournament in order to make the NCAA tournament.
Carolina (19-12, 11-9 ACC) showed none of the resiliency that defined its run to last year’s national title game. It leaves them fighting just to avoid the dubious title of the only preseason No. 1 ranked team to not make the NCAA tournament since it expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
The Heels finish as the No. 7 seed for the ACC tournament and will face the winner of No. 11 seed Virginia Tech and No. 14 Notre Dame on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. in Greensboro.
UNC again had its chances late in a close game with the Blue Devils. And again didn’t come through with timely baskets when it needed them most.
Twice in the final minute they had shots to tie or take the lead and both times R.J. Davis and Caleb Love came up short. Carolina missed their final seven shot attempts from the floor, which was similar to how it closed out its loss at Duke when it went scoreless in the game’s final 3:57 minutes.
There was a reason UNC coach Hubert Davis harped on the three free throw attempts Carolina had in its loss at Duke a month ago. Getting to the line is a big part of the Heels game and it was a factor on Saturday.
The Heels shot 18-21 from the free throw line, but it was just as important to get Duke in foul trouble.
Duke’s Dereck Lively, who dominated the first meeting with 14 rebounds and eight blocks, picked up two fouls in the first three minutes of the second half. He sat for a long stretch with four fouls and played just 17 minutes.
But the Heels didn’t fully take advantage of his absence. Armando Bacot, who had 17 points and 11 rebounds, only had one basket in the second half.
Carolina faced its biggest deficit of the game at 43-36 and still hadn’t made a field goal six minutes into the second half.
When Love finally scored on a layup with 13:45, he sparked three straight possessions that the Heels scored baskets including and R.J. Davis 3-pointer to tie it at 43.
They last led 9-8 with 13:43 left in the first half and had three straight misses with a chance to take the lead, until Davis made his third 3 of the game with 9:02 left.
Pete Nance, who was limited in the first half by foul trouble, scored his first basket on a 3-pointer that followed Davis. But the Heels could not build on its 49-45 lead.
They finished shooting just 26.7 percent from the field in the second half and a season-low 30.4 percent for the game.