With just under seven minutes to play in one of the most storied rivalries in college basketball, Duke trailed 68-60 to North Carolina, making the 74-73 comeback victory for the Blue Devils something neither side will forget anytime soon.
The 5th-ranked Tarheels led the 20th-ranked Blue Devils by four at the half, playing at home in the Dean Smith Center, and saw a second-half lead balloon to eight as Duke struggled to find a bucket—the Blue Devils had just one field goal from 11:19 until the 6:30 mark of the second half—before Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski called a timeout that tipped the game in the opposite direction.
Duke scored nine of the next 11 points, on three Brandon Ingram jumpers and a three-point play by Grayson Allen, to cut the eight point deficit to just one at the under-four media timeout.
That break would be the game’s last, as neither team called a timeout in the final 3:52, something Roy Williams apologized to his team about after the game. From ESPN’s C.L. Brown:
“Coach Smith taught me — and I believe this, I’m not blaming it on Coach Smith, it’s my call,” Williams said. “I think you should always attack before the defense gets set. I’ve always believed that, always taught that, the way I’ve always played. I told the kids I should’ve called the timeout.”
Okay, first, how amazing would it be if he WAS blaming it on Coach Smith? And to be fair, that he even had to clarify that he wasn’t blaming his decision not to call a timeout with under 25 seconds to go, down one point, on Dean Smith kind of in a way means he was. Wasn’t he?
Regardless of who Williams blames—himself or his mentor—he was right! He shouldn’t have called timeout in that spot, because letting the kids play—and letting young adults make decisions for themselves to learn from their mistakes and failures—is the whole damn point of the college process.
Now, no, not everything in life or in college or on the basketball court down one in a rivalry game needs to be a teachable moment, but when coaches call timeout at the end of games to micromanage every single moment, that rarely works in their favor either. By letting the game play out, and letting his talented team figure out a way to break down Duke’s defense, Williams taught the Tarheels something that can help them the rest of the season and into the NCAA Tournament.
He trusts them.
The outcome of that trust was a loss. A bad loss, frankly, given how the last seven minutes went. A really bad loss, given it was Duke and the game was at home.
But the ACC wasn’t lost on Wednesday night, and neither was the national championship. It’s hard to imagine North Carolina getting off a worse shot than they did in that situation, as Joel Berry—who was 2-for-11 from the floor until that point, hoisted up a contested shot from just inside the free throw line after being unable to find Marcus Paige or Brice Johnson or Kennedy Meeks or, really, anyone else who probably should have taken this shot.
— DUKE FANS (@LifeOfADukeFan) February 18, 2016
Again, Williams not calling a timeout in that spot was right…until maybe it wasn’t.
If that doesn’t make sense, maybe this will. Allen’s missed jumper fell to North Carolina with 19 seconds to play, and rather than calling a timeout there, or having his team hustle across midcourt to call a timeout, set up a final play and allow the Duke defense to get set as well, Williams rolled the dice that one of his stars could get a bucket in a transition situation.
The issue wasn’t the timeout. It was that Carolina didn’t push the ball up the floor, instead getting into a regular offensive set with just over 13 seconds to play. Johnson did touch the ball, at the top of the three-point arc, before dishing to Justin Jackson on a ball screen. Jackson took one dribble and was double-teamed immediately.
Look at the spacing on the floor at that point, with under 10 seconds to play. There is no pass to make, so at that point, Williams could have thought to call a timeout to run a play from the sideline that would get the ball into Paige’s hands, or set up something to go down low to Johnson. Let’s not forget Paige had a horrible game shooting, so it’s not like running a play for him at that point was going to guarantee a victory anyway. Playing it out might have made more sense there too.
Williams did opt to let his team play it out, showing, again, that he trusts them. The team smartly reset the play with about eight seconds on the clock, and with just over seven seconds left, Berry tried to break Duke freshman Derryck Thornton down off the dribble. But Thorton’s length—he has at least two inches on Berry and a much longer wingspan—proved too much, and the contested shot fell way short, giving Duke the win.
The shot was bad, and the decision to take it was probably worse, but none of that was Williams’ fault. He trusted his team to make the right decision and they had ample time to run two sets on the offensive end to try to get one clean look.
Was it panic by Berry? Probably. But it was also great defense by Duke, a team not known for its defensive prowess this season. Thornton stayed with Berry and didn’t foul him despite getting a hand right in his face. Neither Duke big took the bait on the spin move by Berry, which would have opened up a pass lane for an easy game-winning dunk.
Marshall Plumlee actually took a step toward the slasher, but when Thornton re-established good defensive position, Plumlee had the presence of mind to step back and cover his man, leaving Berry hanging in the air with nowhere to go but up, where Thornton was waiting for the game-saving block.
Now it’s Duke who is suddenly the hottest team in the ACC, and maybe the country, after three-straight wins over top 15 teams, the last two coming on final-second plays. Carolina had a chance to do to Duke what the Devils did to Virginia on Saturday, but it certainly didn’t go their way on that last attempt.
Still, Williams was right to not call at timeout with under 20 seconds to play, trusting his team. And while he probably should have bailed out his big with a sideline T.O. with 10 seconds left, the right decision was made again, giving the Tarheels a fresh set with enough time for a shot and a rebound. It just didn’t fall, and Carolina lost a game they had no business losing.
Just saw end of UNC/Duke. Roy Williams is an all time legend for not calling the timeout to end a college game
— Dr.LawyerIndianChief (@DrLwyrIndnChf) February 18, 2016
The last minute of this contest will be dissected for some time, but Carolina didn’t just lose this game because of one play, or one minute. The Tarheels shot 1-for-13 from three and missed 40—FORTY—field goals in the game, wasting 29 points on 13-for-17 and 19 rebounds from Johnson. They lost because after Coach K called his timeout with Duke down eight the Blue Devils shot 5-for-9 from the field and 3-for-3 from the line, while North Carolina scored only five points the rest of the game, going 2-for-8 from the floor, 1-for-2 from the line with two turnovers.
This loss—at home, to Duke without Matt Jones for almost the entire game, up 8 with seven to play—will stay with Carolina the rest of the season. Williams’ decision to let them play it out will too, and both the decision and the result should help the Tarheels at some point later on.
Trust is a powerful motivator, even if it doesn’t always lead to the win. Williams showed his team that last night. He shouldn’t have to apologize for it.