The regular season finale seemed to be going about as well as could be expected. After Duke took a nine point lead with just three minutes remaining, it seemed as though the Blue Devils were on their way to another victory in the Dean Dome. Then a familiar trend began as the Blue Devils went scoreless down the stretch and hand wrapped a victory for the Tar Heels. It was almost a mirror image of games past for the Devils. TDD takes a look at the match up and offers our thoughts.
What Went Wrong
- Duke had this game in the bag. Up nine with the ball and just over three minutes to go, all that had to happen was for Duke to value the ball and spread the court. Instead the Blue Devils all of a sudden forgot how to deal with full court pressure, and froze up at the free throw line, missing four straight attempts that would have iced the game. Sure there were some calls or no calls down the stretch that could have helped Duke stave off the inevitable, but the bottom line is the Blue Devils shouldn’t have been in that situation. When Daniel Ewing lost the ball after contact with David Noel on the final play, the game’s outcome was almost a formality as Duke had squandered all its momentum, not to mention a nine point lead.
- After lighting up the Smith Center in the first half, J.J. Redick disappeared after intermission, scoring 0 second half points and missing a pair of late threes that would have iced the game. The game winner was half way down before rimming out, but a minute prior the junior had a wide open look from the corner that missed. As Coach K said in the post game “he’s human”, though it’s unlikely Redick will get many better looks than the two that didn’t fall. Credit has to go to Jackie Manuel, who played incredible defense on Redick, and it is incredibly unfair to heap the blame on a kid who gave everything he had for the entire game. Even with an injured ankle. However, that’s the price he pays as the team’s leader.
- The same can be said of Ewing, the team’s only senior. Duke knew that UNC had to foul them, so the plan was to get into the front court and wait for the foul. Instead Ewing tried to beat his man off the dribble and get into space. There was a timeout available to burn if he got into trouble. Instead he bumped in Noel and lost the ball. It was his second turnover in the final 1:30 and the most costly.
- While Shelden Williams was able to establish himself on the defensive end, he was kept off the glass and taken to the woodshed by Sean May. May out-rebounded Williams 24-4 and for most of the game could score when ever he wanted. If anything it had to be a wake up call for the Landlord and his early entry aspirations. May is quick and strong, but he’s what Williams would face in the NBA on a bad night. If nothing else the two games against UNC were eye opening. Williams also missed a number of key free throws down the stretch that hurt.
- With Williams ineffective on the glass, Duke struggled to gain any presence on the boards, not gaining an offensive rebound until the end of the first half. It also allowed UNC to gain a significant advantage on second chance points. Towards the end of the game it was obvious that the Heels’ strategy was to allow Raymond Felton to beat his man off the dribble and just throw up shot attempts, allowing UNC’s big front line to “go get it”. Duke would have loved for Shavlik Randolph to have been in the game late, but the Raleigh native was hampered with several fouls away from the ball, and fouled out in just 15 minutes of action, leaving Williams to team with 6’4 Reggie Love and seldom used Patrick Johnson inside.
- Duke’s downfall in March may end up being an inability to deal with full court pressure. On Sunday the Blue Devils looked shaky at best when the Tar Heels pressed, especially at the end of the game when Duke tuned it over several times in the final two minutes, including the eventual killer by Ewing. Rather than attacking and moving to receive the pass, Duke would wait for the pressure to come towards them, but no one on the wing would move to receive the pass, leaving a smaller guard to face the two man press, which yielded several extra shots for the Tar Heels.
- The physical toll taken from playing so many minutes was evident down the stretch as Duke went just 1-of-6 from the free throw line in the second half. Simply put, Duke is going to have to get more out of their rotation in big games. Not statistically, just stealing minutes. Guys like David McClure, Reggie Love, and Patrick Johnson should get a lot of opportunities from this point forward.
What Went Right
- While North Carolina had early success on the offensive end, the Duke defensive effort for much of the second half was truly spectacular. Undermanned and fatigued, Duke managed to hold North Carolina to 30% shooting in the second half and just 40% for the game. The Heels got just one uncontested look from three point range, and finished just 1-of-11 from beyond the arc.
- While he wasn’t given the recognition of his counterpart, Shelden Williams finally figured out that when he went to the basket with power, there was little North Carolina could do to stop him. Williams showed a number of good ball fakes and power moved that allowed him the space to finish at the rim with regularity. If Duke would continue to go inside to him at the rate they did on Sunday, Williams would be a 20-23 point per game scorer. Hopefully that’s a hallmark of the 2005-2006 Blue Devils.
- Once he saw that he’d have to fight through too much to get a fraction of a look, J.J. Redick reverted to his floor game and made several key passes to teammates as UNC hounded him. As a whole the Duke backcourt distributed the ball very well for most of the game with both Redick (6) and Ewing (9) tallying more assists than Felton did for the Heels.
- Once again the unexpected hero for Duke was Lee Melchionni, who continues to be unafraid to step in and take the big shot. The junior hit five big threes on the night and helped put the Blue Devils up by nine. With Redick being hounded and Williams commanding attention on the interior, Melchionni played within himself and took what was available to him…in this case wide open looks from the perimeter.
- Duke came into this game with the odds stacked against them from the start. Without their only true point guard and the team’s best on the ball defender, against the nation’s most talented team, and with the starters playing nearly the entire game, the Blue Devils probably shouldn’t have had a chance to be in this one. Add in the two big guys getting into foul trouble and Duke should have been blown off the court. And yet, barring a few mental lapses, Duke wins this game comfortably. If anything it has to be a source of pride that this group knows they can play with anyone on any given night.
TDD Player of the Game:
For his knack of hitting big shots and being unaffected by the timing of said attempts, Lee Melchionni is our TDD Player of the Game. His five threes put Duke in position to come away with a win.
The bottom line for Duke is that there is little chance the Blue Devils will play a better opponent than they did Sunday no matter their draw in the Big Dance. North Carolina had several future NBA players on the court and Duke beat them for most of the game. Duke melted down at the end and let it get away, but the problems that caused that debacle can be remedied in practice and this is a veteran team with Final Four experience that will allow them to keep things in perspective and move forward.
Duke heads to Washington for the first expansion era ACC Tournament with three games in three days. The first game will pit the Blue Devils against the winner of Miami and Virginia. The Hurricanes are fighting for their collective tournament lives while the WaHoos are apparently winding down the Pete Gillen era with a thud. Should Duke advance it’s on to the winner of NC State and Wake Forest, and then the finals. No matter what, the tournament layout will test an already thin Duke roster.