Throughout the season, we’ve spent countless words detailing Carolina’s late-game execution in crunch-time situations. Oftentimes this year (including the first Duke game), the Heels have been out-executed down the stretch. Even in some wins (like at Clemson), the Heels’ late play (and decision-making) left plenty to be desired. But Saturday night, on the season’s biggest stage, the UNC close-and-late performance was top-notch. And, sometimes, it’s less about execution and more about just stepping up and making winning plays.
We’ll start this close-and-late breakdown as close as it can get: tied at 71 with 6:15 on the clock following a Luke Kennard tip-in. On the court for the Heels was the (regular) starting five–a unit that played 7:03 of the final 9:07, leading 19-10 over that period (the Heels trailed 8-4 in the 2:04 without all five starters down the stretch).
UNC1 (74-71): After running some active (but somewhat frantic and unfocused) freelance motion, UNC dialed up dribble hand-off action between Isaiah Hicks and Justin Jackson with about 10 seconds left on the shot clock. Duke’s Frank Jackson, an explosive freshman scorer, made the cardinal sin of going under the exchange, leaving his namesake free for a clean 3-point look from the top of the key. The Heels’ Jackson, who had missed his first six 3-pointers (including two from the top of the key, a spot where he’s shooting just 36.7% (18-49) this season), calmly drilled this clutch opportunity to put the Heels back in the lead.
DU1 (74-71): Using a ball screen from Amile Jefferson, Jayson Tatum, Duke’s stretch 4, attacked off the dribble (as he was looking to do all game). Unusually, the Heels opted not to switch this big-big exchange, with Kennedy Meeks flat-hedging while Hicks worked hard to recover to a driving Tatum. Hicks recovered just enough to force Tatum to fade left while attempting to finish to his right, with Jackson arriving late to get a help-side hand up. Make no mistake, though, this was a pretty good (and close) look for Tatum, who certainly didn’t have his best night as a finisher (some due primarily to good Carolina defense, some not so much). Meeks corralled the defensive rebound.
UNC2 (77-71): In its secondary break, Carolina went immediately back to the identical dribble hand-off action from the previous possession between Jackson and Hicks. This time, Frank Jackson was conscientious to fight over the top of the exchange. A solid Hicks screen, however, allowed Justin a driving lane as Frank frantically tried to recover. Jefferson, stuck a bit in no man’s land, was forced to step up to stop Jackson’s drive, allowing Carolina’s Player of the Year candidate to thread a perfectly delivered pocket pass to a rolling Hicks. Hicks, guarded by an overmatched Frank Jackson now, easily finished at the rim while drawing the foul. It was his 13th “and-1” of the season (and second of the game), tying Meeks for the most on the team. He knocked down the free throw, the 10th time he’s completed a 3-point-play opportunity.
DU2 (77-73): After Nate Britt and Luke Maye checked in for Theo Pinson and Hicks, Duke immediately exploited the Britt-Kennard matchup (with Britt giving up several inches and dozens of pounds). It used a floppy set to curl Kennard off a right-block screen. He then rolled in a floater over Britt in the paint. Britt defended it well positionally; he simply wasn’t big enough to adequately stop it.
UNC3 (79-73): Carolina went back to its freelance passing game, again using Jackson in a two-man game. This time, it was Maye who set a ball screen for Jackson on the right wing. Duke, who had been switching all exchanges all game, actually hedged and recovered here (with Frank Jackson on the ball and Jefferson as the hedger). Jefferson was late to get back to a rolling Maye, and Jackson was able to hit him for an open layup.
DU3 (79-75): Also sticking to what was working, Duke again ran Kennard off a curl out of floppy (this time using a left-block screen). After receiving the ball in the paint, he took Britt to the hoop to draw a foul (then knocked down both free throws).
UNC4 (79-75): For the fourth straight trip, the Heels utilized Jackson in two-man action. On this possession, it was Meeks setting a ball screen for Jackson on the left wing. He drove baseline then, upon being cut off by the Duke help defense, threaded a wrap-around bounce pass to Joel Berry in the opposite short corner. It was a clean look for Berry, though he was a bit off-balance (and not really ready to catch and shoot, a bit surprised by the odd angle of the Jackson pass, perhaps) which led to a missed 16-footer. Although
DU4 (79-78): With Jackson along one baseline (after his pass) and Berry along the other (after his shot), Duke was able to grab the defensive board and push tempo (following a strong Tatum outlet pass to Kennard). Britt was left by himself in transition to stop Kennard and Allen and, given Duke’s trademark floor spacing, was unable to prevent Allen’s 3 after he sprinted to the left corner. This was just high-level transition offense and shot-making by Duke to take advantage of bad Carolina floor balance.
UNC5 (81-78): With Duke on a 5-0 run, Berry made one of his signature momentum-shifting shots. After Jefferson switched onto him following some perimeter exchanges, Berry drove middle from the left wing in an attempt to get to his preferred right side. Tatum made a strong help rotation, forcing Berry back to the left-side of the rim (and his left hand). This was a fantastic finish from Berry, who’s not always at his best when forced to his left.
DU5 (81-79): UNC switched Britt onto Allen, opting for Jackson’s size on Kennard. Duke used a pick-and-pop to create an iso opportunity for Tatum against Maye (an action it used about a dozen times on Saturday night to isolate Tatum against Hicks/Maye). He attacked immediately to draw a foul on Maye, then split a pair of foul shots to cut the lead to two.
UNC6 (81-79): As Duke was consistently isolating his bench players, Williams went back to his starters with Pinson and Hicks returning to the court. Using a Hicks ball screen, Jackson settled for a contested 18-footer over Jefferson (who switched this time). While Jackson’s getting plenty of praise (deservedly so) for his mid-range game, it’s probably worth making a distinction between 3-level and 4-level scoring (treating the four scoring levels as 1.) close, 2.) 5-10′ (post moves and floaters, generally), 3.) 10-20′ (catch-and-shoot or pull-up mid-range jumpers), and 4.) 3-pointers). Jackson’s been great between 5 and 10 feet this season, almost always utilizing his lethal floater from this distance. But, after this miss, he’s shooting just 24.2% (8-33) from 10 to 20 feet on the season. And, on mid-range pull-up jumpers like this attempt, he’s made just 1 of 17 all year (5.9%). Given that data (and how well-contested the shot was—not to mention that it was a really long 2), this was definitely a win for the Duke defense and a settle by the Carolina offense (although, if you’re going to settle, settle with your best scorer, I guess).
DU6 (81-79): Pinson was back on Kennard, and Duke went back to its right-block floppy screen for him. This time, given Pinson’s size/physicality, Kennard cut to the right wing rather than curling to the right elbow like against Britt. He got a pretty clean 3-point look off, but rushed it a bit due to Pinson’s length/impending close-out. It missed short, with Tatum out-battling (and possibly shoving) Hicks for the offensive board. The Devils reset their offense, going back to the Tatum pick-and-pop iso set. On this occasion, Hicks and Jackson (defending Allen) switched the ball screen, leaving Tatum isolated against Jackson. Undeterred, the brash rookie immediately looked to attack. But Carolina’s wily veteran was one step ahead, moving his feet well to force a Tatum push-off/offensive foul. It was only the fourth offensive foul that Jackson’s drawn this season (all in ACC games), but this one was certainly at a critical time.
UNC7 (83-79): Following a Meeks pindown screen out of a Carolina box set, Berry received the ball on the left wing. Meeks immediately sealed Jefferson after setting the screen, giving Berry an option. He could have taken one hard dribble to the left and spun in a lefty entry pass to Meeks to lead him perfectly to the hoop for a layup. Or, he could have taken one hard dribble to the right to launch a contested 16-foot, left-elbow jumper over the longer Allen. The percentage play, especially in Carolina’s post-centric system, was probably the former—an entry to Meeks. Berry, of course, chose the latter, knocking down the tough mid-range jumper. If nothing else, this play provides a perfect view into the crunch-time mind of Berry. When the chips are down, and the choice is to trust his passing or shot-making abilities, he’ll fall back on his scoring ability nearly every time. The good news for UNC fans is that Berry is a cold-blooded assassin in situations like this. He’s not afraid of taking big shots, and can create/hit them even when well-defended. On the year, Berry’s now shooting 50.0% (18-36) on mid-range jumpers off the dribble.
DU7 (83-79): Allen used a little brush screen by Kennard beyond the arc to drive on Jackson, before wildly throwing his body into a helping Meeks to again get to the line (he had 11 FTAs on just 4 FGAs on Saturday night). As possible cosmic intervention from his earlier foul-drawing theatrics (or, more likely, late-game fatigue or good, old-fashioned choking/bad luck), Allen missed both free throws with Hicks grabbing the defensive board.
UNC8 (85-79): After turning down a Hicks ball screen late in the shot clock, Berry drove right on Kennard, then banked in a short floater over a helping Allen. Learning from his earlier offensive foul drawn by the helping Jefferson, Berry didn’t over-penetrate this time, opting for the floater rather than getting all the way to the rim. Though not as prolific with the floater as Jackson, Berry’s actually been more accurate with his this season, converting 57% of his 21 such attempts this season (speaking of 4-level scorers!).
DU8 (85-79): A Tatum drive-and-kick, which hoped to set up a clean 3-point look for Frank Jackson, was thwarted by a great fake-and-retreat maneuver by Berry. After faking a help rotation, he quickly recovered to contest Jackson’s 3 after the kick-out pass (this fake-and-retreat style of defending the drive-and-kick was memorably used by Raymond Felton on his late deflection/steal to essentially seal the 2005 national championship against Illinois). Berry’s good close-out forced a Jackson brick off the backboard which, when rebounded by Pinson, gave the Heels the ball and a six-point lead with only 1:2o left on the clock. This would essentially wrap it up for the Heels (despite a silly Pinson foul that allowed Kennard to convert a 3-point play and cut the Duke deficit to three; Theo immediately made up for it by hitting Jackson for a transition layup, his seventh assist of the game).
When the pressure was on, Carolina did a great job of getting the ball to its best scorers. Jackson and Berry drove all the action, either as shooters or playmakers. The Heels leaned on two-man action (ball screens and dribble hand-offs), mixing in a box set or two along the way. On the defensive end, Carolina made a strong Duke offense work hard for its looks. The help rotations were crisp, as were the hedges/recoveries. It certainly wasn’t perfect defensive execution (and even that won’t stop an elite scorer like Kennard from getting buckets), but Saturday’s sense of urgency on that end will be what’s required for another march through March.
Big Game Berry + defensive urgency + late-game execution bodes well for a Carolina postseason run. Buckle up: it’s about to get fun!