There’s no way to practice it – not really, anyway – but if the play could be scripted, if the bounce of a ball off a rim could be choreographed just right, then it would have looked like it looked in the final seconds of North Carolina’s 92-90 loss at Duke on Wednesday night.
It was the fourth time Roy Williams, the Tar Heels’ coach, had designed an attempt for a last-second shot. The first, at the end of regulation, didn’t go according to plan. None of them did.
Near the end of regulation, sophomore guard Marcus Paige attempted a long, contested jump shot at the end of a chaotic possession. He missed and there was a scrum for the rebound and the horn sounded. Overtime.
“We take the last shot of regulation and I thought – it was a dog pile,” Williams said later. “I thought we got murdered in that … but it was no call.”
Then Williams drew up a second last-second play in overtime, with 32 seconds left, his team trailing by one and then by two after Duke’s Quinn Cook made the second of two free throws. On that possession the Blue Devils hounded Paige, keeping the ball out of his hands and then forcing him to give it up.
Sophomore forward Isaiah Hicks found himself with possession near the free throw line. He was open but didn’t know how open.
“I liked Isaiah there 14 feet from the basket with nobody guarding him,” Williams said. “And he just didn’t realize how open he was. He could have taken one bounce and dunked the ball, probably.”
Hicks passed out to J.P. Tokoto, the junior forward who scored 15 points and added eight rebounds and seven assists. Tokoto released a shot from near the left baseline that bounced off the rim and Duke rebounded it.
Williams didn’t mind the shot. He liked it, in fact. But the possession hadn’t gone by design.
“That was not the option,” he said of Tokoto taking the shot. “That was not one, two or three.”
Now the Tar Heels, trailing 91-89, needed Duke to miss at least one of its two free throws with 5 seconds to play. Cook obliged. He made one of two for a three-point Duke lead and Williams called a timeout again to draw up a play.
The plan was for Paige to come off two screens. That didn’t work, though, and so the inbounds pass went to Nate Britt. Duke immediately fouled him, eliminating the chance that Britt could tie the score with a 3-pointer.
“When Nate caught it I knew they were going to try to foul if he put it on the floor at all,” Williams said.
Britt made the first free throw. Now it was 92-90, Duke leading. Three seconds remained.
What to do? Britt could have tried to make the second free throw to cut the lead to one. Then the Tar Heels could have fouled and put Duke back on the free throw line. There wasn’t a lot of time, though.
So Williams decided that Britt needed to miss the second free throw intentionally. He drew up the play on his board with the ball deflecting off the rim and with Kennedy Meeks setting a screen for Isaiah Hicks, who was to try to rebound the shot and put it back up.
“That’s something you can’t really practice,” Paige said. “(Williams) drew it up for us. It just comes down to how the ball comes off the rim. You can draw up the perfect play and he can shoot it to the left and it might bounce to the right.”
Paige stood just beyond the 3-point line on the left side. While Britt went through his routine before the free throw, Paige inched closer. He looked like a sprinter trying to get into position at the start of a track meet. The shot went up and Paige ran toward the basket, timing his jump for when the ball was to hit the rim.
It bounced to the left. Duke defended Meeks’ screen for Hicks, and Hicks wasn’t a factor in the play. Paige was, though. Britt’s miss bounced off the rim and toward the left. Paige was there. He had his hand on it.
“I was probably a split-second away from being able to catch and shoot it, because I almost got both hands on the ball,” he said. “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.”
It was the fourth time it hadn’t worked out. After Paige’s miss at the end of regulation, and after Tokoto’s miss with eight seconds left in overtime, and after the last-second play for Paige instead resulted in Britt’s trip to the free throw line. The final play Williams drew up nearly worked. The ball bounced like he hoped it would, and Paige was where he was supposed to be.
He had the rebound in his grasp until it wasn’t, and a game UNC once had in its grasp – a 10-point lead with less than four minutes to play in regulation – had finally slipped away.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter