Hubert Davis looked weary. Armando Bacot looked desolate. And North Carolina looked, once again, like a team that doesn’t much belong in the NCAA tournament.
The Tar Heels’ 62-57 home loss to Duke Saturday night sent UNC reeling into the ACC tournament as the No. 7 seed, only one season and one starter removed from a squad that went to the Final Four and nearly won the national championship in 2022.
What is wrong with the Tar Heels? This has been perhaps college basketball’s biggest mystery this season. UNC (19-12 overall, 11-9 ACC) has regressed in a number of ways, but on Saturday the most noticeable component was its horrendous shooting. The Tar Heels couldn’t hit from 20 feet and they couldn’t hit from two feet, as they scored a paltry 57 points for the second consecutive game — and the second consecutive loss — against Duke.
The Blue Devils (23-8, 14-6), meanwhile, ruined UNC’s Senior Day just as the Tar Heels had ruined Duke’s the year before in Cameron Indoor Stadium, grinding out a win behind seven-foot freshman Kyle Filipowski’s 22 points and 13 rebounds.
Duke will enter the ACC tournament as the No. 4 seed and has already all but clinched its own NCAA bid no matter what happens in the conference tournament.
UNC, at No. 7, will need to beat the Boston-College winner Wednesday at 7 p.m. to get to a game with No. 2 Virginia Thursday.
But again: What is wrong with the Tar Heels?
“Just a mixture of things, really,” said Bacot, who lost his final game in the Smith Center. “I don’t know how to pinpoint it.”
“Sometimes you put too much pressure on yourself instead of going out and playing freely,” said UNC’s RJ Davis.
It doesn’t help much when you shoot 30% overall and 22% from 3-point range and then let Jeremy Roach blow through four defenders, splitting Bacot and Leaky Black at the end, for a layup that took Duke’s lead from one point to three in the final minute.
The Tar Heels led 57-56, thrilling the shoehorned crowd of 21,750 in Chapel Hill, but then got outscored 6-0 in the last 98 seconds. Davis said the Tar Heels didn’t handle the “discipline and details” correctly in several instances, pointing out a couple of late defensive errors.
“Those things have been told and taught and those are types of things that you just can’t do down the stretch,” Davis said. “So it is very frustrating.”
In other words, UNC was what UNC generally has been this year — underachieving and disappointing. By every metric, the Tar Heels are on the bubble entering the ACC tournament, probably needing to get at least to Friday to get into the NCAA tourney. Bacot said he thought UNC might need to come from the No. 7 seed to win it all, which would require four wins in four days.
“That was our goal anyway,” Bacot said of winning the tournament in Greensboro. The Tar Heels will open play Wednesday at 7 p.m.; Duke will play Thursday.
“It’s just something we’ve got to do,” Bacot said. “We don’t really have a choice.”
Duke, meanwhile, only shot 38% itself in what was often an ugly offensive game for both teams. But Filipowski was the best player on the court Saturday, and he got physical and frequently won the battle underneath.
“I don’t want guys older than me thinking they’re tougher than me,” Filipowski said. “I can be stereotyped very easily. So I just wanted to prove to everyone that I’ve still got game as well, and I’m not just a scrawny guy who goes in and does a little bit here and there.”
At 60-57 Duke, with 19 seconds left, Filipowski missed his only free throw of the game. That allowed Caleb Love to take a potentially game-tying three-pointer with eight seconds left. But it missed — UNC was only 5-for-23 from three-point range on the day — and Filipowski leaked out for a game-ending dunk.
Duke won the first meeting this season 63-57, so this one was only a single point off of that one. “Both them and us, our defense is ahead of our offense,” said Duke coach Jon Scheyer, who is now 2-0 as a head coach in the 260-game strong UNC-Duke rivalry.
But Duke’s defense was better, even with center Dereck Lively II (eight blocks in the first Duke-UNC game) in constant foul trouble that limited him to only 17 minutes, two points and three blocks. The Blue Devils played a grind-it-out style that pleased Scheyer but frustrated the Tar Heels at most every turn. And even when UNC suddenly did get an open layup, half the time the Tar Heels would miss it.
“I thought we had wide-open looks from three that we didn’t make,” Davis said, “but more important I thought we had layups that we missed. We missed a lot of shots around the basket.”
It all added up to another disappointment in a season that has had far too many of them. UNC has one last chance to save its season, this time in the ACC tournament.
But after Saturday night, you really have to be wearing some baby-blue glasses to think that’s going to work out very well.