This night messes with me like few others.
Carolina-Duke. Duke-Carolina. All day, all last night, it’s all the true fans of either school think about leading up to the tip.
This is the perfect confluence of nervous energy, anger, joy, hope and relief — none necessarily in that order.
This is it. It’s coming. And here are my thoughts as the game went on Wednesday night.
UNC point guard Ty Lawson is a game-time decision. I, like probably every Carolina fan (hey, I can’t help it, I went to school there), am worried to death that he won’t be able to play, and that if he does, he will be slowed by the ankle sprain he suffered on Sunday against Florida State.
I honestly think, if Quentin Thomas has to play for 30-plus minutes — and he probably will — Duke will win. If somehow UNC can establish all three of its big men — Tyler Hansbrough, Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson — then the Heels will have a chance. Add a 25-point night from Wayne Ellington, and UNC can win.
But without a healthy Lawson, it will take a special effort from a few guys.
Damn. The story just moved on the wire. Lawson’s out.
If I were a betting man, I’d consider taking Duke and the points.
14:54 Hansbrough has been brilliant in the early going, scoring eight of UNC’s 12 points as the Heels lead 12-10. Hansbrough has made an 18-foot jumper, a pull-up intermediate J and a couple of nice moves on the baseline.
Duke’s Kyle Singler hit a wide open 3-pointer to bring the Devils within two, and to start the game, Greg Paulus buried an open 3. It’s a back-and-forth, up-tempo game already.
11:33 And the real Quentin Thomas shows up. Immediately after coming back in, Q throws the ball away on one trip, and then on the next trip, he falls down while dribbling, leading to a bad Carolina shot and a Jon Scheyer 3 on the other end. Tie game, 18-18.
So far, though, it’s the Carolina bigs getting it done. Hansbrough and Thompson have eight each, and UNC is holding a 13-4 rebounding advantage.
9:09 Duke has hit five straight 3s and leads by seven. This is impressive, but would be more impressive if any of the five 3s weren’t crazy wide open.
8:43 Is Ellington playing tonight?
4:23 Duke isn’t making 3s anymore — its just doing everything else. The Devils, who are deeper and much more athletic so far than the Heels — are rebounding, making the extra pass, drawing fouls and absolutely hounding Thomas and Marcus Ginyard in the backcourt. Duke leads 38-31, and the Heels are darn close to being blown out in their own building.
3:55 Make that an 11-point lead. Carolina went with a point zone for one possession — it led immediately to a Paulus 3.
Blown out? Not yet at least. A great 8-0 run by the Heels. UNC took care of the ball, actually played some defense as Duke struggled to get into its offense until the shot clock was winding down, and let Hansbrough take over.
As long as the Heels don’t turn it over and they can get it down low to Hansbrough, he can score. He’s doing it with hook shots over double teams, soft runners and turnaround Js. Hansbrough has 18 points at the break, and Duke leads 42-39.
Duke appears, though, to have the formula to win, running its spread offense and getting good looks from the perimeter. If that isn’t there, DeMarcus Nelson seems like he can get to the rim anytime he wants. Ellington and Danny Green have two fouls each, and the Heels, thus far, have zero perimeter game.
Still, the Heels have weathered the first storm.
17:12 Thompson’s line in the second half? Less than three minutes, two fouls. That’s four fouls for the game, almost as many 3s as Paulus has hit.
16:16 Four fouls on Nelson? What are Coach K and Roy doing?
12:47 Duke leads by seven, but the Devils are allowing Carolina to hang around by taking ill-advised shots. The problem is, UNC is rushing things, too, and the guy who had 18 at the half has 19 for the game, and two touches this half.
Remember during the Georgetown game in Elite Eight when Roy should’ve called a timeout and told the Heels, “Hey, give it to Tyler”, and then sent them back out there? He needs to do that now.
12:21 Hansbrough gets a touch and travels.
11:47 Turnover and foul by Q. And Duke’s in the bonus already.
9:28 Get him the ball. Heels go down by nine, and then Hansbrough gets the ball on two straight possessions, and the Heels cut it to five. He’s got 23 points and 14 boards.
Meanwhile, Green and Ellington are a combined 2-for-14 from the field. Duke is playing tremendous defense, but these guys are just missing shots, too.
8:17 It’s a Wayne Ellington sighting! Still a five-point game.
8:00 What a blocked shot by Duke’s Lance Thomas. Denied a Green dunk that would’ve cut it to three.
7:49 Gerald Henderson makes a silky leaner. Back to seven.
Here’s the thing, and this is why, even with Lawson, UNC probably won’t win a national title this year: the Heels can’t get stops when they absolutely have to. The only reason UNC had a chance to trim the deficit from five was when Paulus threw the ball to the Duke bench.
Most of the stops have been a result of Duke’s mistakes, meaning poor shot selection from deep.
6:21 Ballgame. Singler 3. It’s nine points, 71-62. It’s over.
3:43 Ginyard made a 3 to answer Singler, but then Paulus made an incredible shot with Thomas in his face while falling down, another 3 to effectively ice the game. Duke takes a 10-point edge, and without Green or Ellington able to do anything to help Hansbrough from the outside, Duke can just milk this one away.
2:47 Just not meant to be for Ellington. His 3 looked good the whole way, went three-quarters of the way down, and rimmed out. On top of it, Green knocks the rebound away from Singler, but his foot is on the end line while the scraps for the ball.
It’s just Duke’s night. The Devils have been better. 78-70.
1:55 Great — and I mean great — steal by Paulus.
54.5 seconds Getting a little crazy late. Green makes a 3 (FINALLY!) following a turnover, and Carolina’s within five. Need steals.
Or missed foul shots.
33.0 seconds I didn’t mean for Carolina. Two missed foul shots by Q. 85-78. Fini.
Final 89-78, Duke
Yes, Duke only had one loss coming into tonight, and yes, the Devils were No. 2 in the country, but you get the idea that people didn’t quite know just how good they really were.
And while a lot of UNC fans will quickly point out that Lawson didn’t play — Q did have six turnovers when Lawson had had 20 assists and one TO in his last two games — Duke is a great basketball team, a true national title contender. Maybe the Devils aren’t as flashy as Memphis, Kansas and UNC, but they may execute better than any team in the country. They’re not big, and they depend a lot on the 3 — Duke was 13-for-28, 46 percent behind the arc — but Duke gets the shots it wants and flat-out gets into your grill defensively.
As for the Heels, this may have been a good thing for them. Sure, they lost at home to their biggest rival, but they played well in spots without Lawson, who is clearly this team’s engine for Hansbrough’s locomotive. If Thomas — or better yet Ginyard, who may have moved closer to shifting over to be the backup point in addition to his other roles because of his strong performance — can just be decent for 8-10 minutes a game, the Heels will be better for it.
But UNC has to defend better. Yes, Duke executes beautifully. But a lot — A LOT — of those 3s were virtually unguarded. The Heels must stop dribble penetration, and maybe — I guess it comes back to this, huh? — if Lawson can return fully healthy before the NCAA Tournament, then maybe UNC can run their way to the Final Four.
Chances are, though, Duke will be there, too.