CHAPEL HILL – This one cut deep.
A game for the ages ended in a loss that North Carolina will remember for a long, long time.
Duke erased a 13-point lead in the final minutes of regulation and won at the overtime buzzer, shocking the Tar Heels 98-96 in a game that left Roy Williams cussing mad but finally impressed with his team.
The fans filed out of the Smith Center stunned and confused. This was going to be their day. There was no way the Heels could lose.
And yet they did.
Any play in the wild final minutes would’ve clinched the win for Carolina. Any one of referee Ted Valentine’s preening video reviews. Any one of 17 missed free throws. Had any one of the miracle plays Duke made in the final minutes gone the other way, this would’ve been an upset for all time.
Instead, it was the worst kind of loss, a crushing blow in the biggest game of the season, one that had Williams talking in circles, correcting himself, praising his team and wondering what in the world he’d just seen.
In a season filled with inexplicable losses, this one was like watching an inevitable collapse. Even the Carolina players felt it. Freshman forward Armando Bacot described having “an anxiety attack” as the game suddenly began to slip away.
Cole Anthony was exhausted and was playing with four fouls. Garrison Brooks had left the game with a cut over his eye. Leaky Black had fouled out. And Duke guard Tre Jones was driving at will, slicing through the heart of the Carolina defense.
UNC led 77-64 with less than four minutes to play then seemed to just watch it all disappear, helpless to stop it.
Carolina led for 42 minutes. Duke led for 1:47.
Williams said he was more “(expletive) off” after the loss to Boston College last week than this one, but it’s unlikely that his players or fans would agree. He said he wouldn’t allow his team to make excuses or feel “woe is me.”
He compared that kind of reaction to a dainty flower and made sure the journalists understood he didn’t mean anything by that.
“We’re not going to be like that,” Williams said. “And if you want to go do that, go lay in a corner in the fetal position and call your momma, you can.”
As the Duke players celebrated in the visitors locker room, Williams reminded his players they would play again and that they would also “have a chance” to play Duke again.
They might not ever have a chance like they blew here.
This wasn’t Boston College. This was Duke.
Once again, Williams has to try to piece his broken team together and make something of what has become his longest season.
This was the longest game for Carolina, an almost certain win ripped away by its blood rival. No matter what happens from here on out, anything short of a revenge win at Duke one month from now will stain this team forever.
“The old coach is not going to frickin’ quit,” Williams said. “And they’re not either.”
We’ll see about that.