One of North Carolina's best games left the Tar Heels with one of their worst feelings.
They sat quietly in front of their lockers afterward, some of them tying their ties in silence, others staring at the floor. Marcus Paige, the junior guard, could think about nothing other than the ending.
He had a chance, he said, to attempt one last shot that, had it gone in, would have sent UNC and Duke to a second overtime at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday night. Nate Britt, the sophomore guard, intentionally missed a free throw in the final seconds and Paige raced in.
“I was probably a split-second away from being able to catch and shoot it,” Paige said, “because I almost got both hands on the ball. I caught it, like, right here, and then a couple other bodies came in. … It's exactly what we wanted but it just didn't work out.”
The same could be said about a lot of things for the Tar Heels. This was the kind of game they wanted to play, with the kind of execution, with the kind of heart and hustle and determination, with the kind of contributions from role players coach Roy Williams has long sought.
UNC had a 10-point lead with less than four minutes to play in regulation and it looked like, finally, the Tar Heels had perhaps turned a corner – that they'd shaken loose of a prolonged funk that had followed them in their previous four games, three of them losses. It looked that way, at least, until it didn't.
Until Duke erased that lead and forced the game into overtime, and until the Tar Heels came up one shot short – came up losers, again, for the fourth time in the past fifth games. There were tears in Williams' eyes when he met with reporters afterward and, not long after, across the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium and down some stairs, Paige sat stoically while he tried to find the words.
Could there be any way for the Tar Heels to feel good about themselves, given they'd played so well for so long against their fiercest rival? Were there positives to be gained amid the most difficult loss of what's more and more becoming a difficult season?
“You can't do it yet,” said Paige, who made two of his 11 shots from the field and finished with five points. “The way the game ended, you can't sit here and think – I personally can't think of anything positive right now, just because of the game went and how we played for X amount of minutes.
“Minus the very beginning and very end, that was great basketball. Everyone was in it. Everyone was playing well. Well, I didn't play well. But the majority of the team was playing really good basketball. It's just hard to look at this game as a positive when we didn't win after playing so well.”
There were positives, though. UNC trailed by 12 early and then led by 10 late and, in between, it solved the Blue Devils' 3-point shooting – which had been so effective early on – and defended Jahlil Okafor, the Duke freshman center, as well or better than any team had defended him all season.
Okafor, among the favorites to win ACC Player of the Year honors, entered Wednesday averaging more than 18 points and nine rebounds per game. He scored just two points in the second half, and had eight at the end of regulation – which would have been his fewest of the season had the game ended then.
It didn't end then, though, in part because the Tar Heels' collapsed under the weight of their own mistakes in the final minutes of regulation. There was the time when two teammates collided going for a rebound after a Duke miss, and the Blue Devils recovered the possession and scored.
And then when sophomore forward Kennedy Meeks – “the best passer I've ever had like that,” Williams said – attempted a long inbounds pass that found its way out of bounds. Duke didn't score off the turnover, but it contributed to UNC's unease in the final minutes.
Still, the Tar Heels led by five points with 47 seconds to play and they couldn't seal it. Tyus Jones, the Blue Devils' freshman guard, trimmed UNC's lead to two points with a three-point play with 40 seconds left, and then Jones tied it with 27 seconds to play.
Paige missed a shot at the end of regulation that would have won the game and to overtime it went, where Brice Johnson, who led UNC with 18 points and 12 rebounds, fouled out, and where Okafor, quiet for the entire second half, scored four important points.
In the overtime neither team led by more than three points but, by then, the Tar Heels had already taken their best shot. They never came close to controlling the game the way they had when they led by 10 points with less than four minutes to play in regulation, and they were left with desperation in the final minutes.
And left with a defeat that was their most crushing of the season. The Tar Heels hadn't played poorly. They had, in fact, played one of their sharper games of the season – especially in the second half. But they were left, again, to contemplate a loss.
In recent ones against Louisville and Virginia, UNC had questioned its effort and toughness. Against Pitt, the Tar Heels were on the receiving end of a shooting performance unlike any UNC had endured in 30 years.
The defeat at Duke, though, wasn't like those. The Tar Heels had the game in their grasp. A 10-point lead with less than four minutes to play. And then it all disappeared.
“I am really proud of my team,” Williams said.
Inside his team's locker room, though, there wasn't much pride. There was disappointment and hurt and, in some ways, disbelief. But not much pride in coming so close without anything to show for it.
“That's the way we're supposed to play, and you see what can happen when we play that way,” Paige said. “But at the end of the day you still have to make the plays and we just – one play goes this way instead of that way, we're having a different conversation right now. But it didn't happen that way.”