Even in a loss, there is a win
Feb 3, 2013
Even from down here in New Orleans, where the Ravens and 49ers will soon settle the 2012 football season, you could feel the elation, the pain and the suffering of Triangle ACC fans. On a back-to-back-to-back, chilly first Saturday in February, the Tar Heels, Blue Devils and Wolfpack all showed out, and while all three didn't win, I'll make the case that in the end all three were winners for differing reasons.
North Carolina got us started with a trip-to-the-dentist sort of affair, beating Virginia Tech in overtime, 72-60. The Heels spotted the Hokies a 12-0 lead, then clawed their way back in it thanks in large part to 17 offensive rebounds -- and they needed every single one of them. Two of Carolina's final three made baskets in regulation came as a result of an offensive rebound and the first bucket of overtime was a Desmond Hubert follow tip of a missed Marcus Paige jump shot. The Tar Heels only scored eight points in the last 9:01 of the second half, and only survived into overtime thanks to the strong defensive effort of Reggie Bullock. And that brings us to….
Anyone with a basic understanding of basketball could tell you that North Carolina isn't a very good offensive basketball team this year. They don't have a point guard who can consistently run their offense and get the ball to the right players, in the right positions on the floor, to score efficiently. They also don't have a strong post presence and their perimeter game falls a bit short of consistency. Therefore, it's been left up to Carolina's defense to bail them out and that's exactly what happened against Virginia Tech. With P.J. Hairston sidelined with a concussion, Leslie McDonald returned to the line up and contributed to a three-player defensive effort in guarding the Hokies' Erick Green, the leading scorer in college basketball.
Green came into the game scoring an average of 27.4 points in conference play, and a staggering 30 points over his last three contests. But, thanks to Bullock, McDonald and Dexter Strickland, Green was held to only the second sub-20 point scoring output of the year and hounded him into a 7-for-21 day shooting the basketball. Good thing they defended, too, because that trio didn't give a lot on the offensive end. They combined for a 6-of-27 shooting performance that was indicative of UNC's scoring woes. Luckily, Marcus Paige was in the building. The freshman led the team in shots, hitting four from long range and scored 19 points, eight of which came in a two-minute span of overtime as the Heels opened up a 69-60 lead.
However, on a day when Carolina could muster only a 37 percent shooting performance of their own, their defense on Green and their ability to hit the offensive glass are the reasons why the Tar Heels are 5-3 in conference play.
Next up, the Duke Blue Devils visited Florida State and, in retrospect, gave you a perfect opportunity to make your Super Bowl Sunday beer and chips run. This game was over before the second media time out as Duke opened up an 18-2 can-of-ugly on the Seminoles in the first 5:48 en route to a 79-60 win that was far more lopsided than even that score indicates.
The Blue Devils made eight of their first 10 shots, two of them from beyond the 3-point line, and forced FSU into three turnovers and that was all you'd need to see. This was, without question, the best Duke has looked since Ryan Kelly's injury, and they didn't even need a great contribution from senior center Mason Plumlee (8 points, 5 rebounds in just 29 minutes). Not that Plumlee wasn't an integral part of what they did, it just wasn't a big scoring day for the Devils' player of the year candidate.
The trio of Quin Cook, Seth Curry and Rasheed Sulaimon combined for 53 points on 20-of-34 shooting from the field and a scorching 11-of-17 from long range. In an afternoon in which the Blue Devils shot nearly 61 percent from the floor, they actually were slightly better from beyond the arc and that will always spell trouble for the opposite uniforms. Better than his 14 points however, was Sulaimon's defense on Florida State's all-league guard Michael Snaer. The senior was held to just seven points -- half of his average -- on 3-of-13 shooting from the floor and didn't score his first points until a 3-pointer finally went down nearly five minutes into the second half.
Duke is now 6-2 in conference play heading into their Thursday night, must-win, revenge match against NC State because….
The Wolfpack were stunned near the buzzer by Miami, 79-78 at PNC Arena in the finale of the Triangle Triple-header. Let's channel the words and thoughts of Sidney Lowe for a second and recognize that there are days when basketball truly is a game of runs. The Hurricanes led 17-8 after a little more than six minutes were gone. State then countered with a 24-9 surge over the next 9:33 to lead 32-26. Then, with 14 minutes left, freshman guard Tyler Lewis completed a 3-point play giving the Wolfpack a 54-44 lead and PNC Arena was vibrating. But, the Canes hit six of their next seven shots and responded with a 24-8 run over a seven-minute span that had Miami ahead, 68-62 with 7:09 left in the game.
Stay with me, people. The roller coaster ride isn't over.
State, behind Rodney Purvis and Calvin Leslie, outscored the Hurricanes 14-3 over the next five minutes and led by five with just over two minutes to play. Unfortunately, the last burst belonged to The U, and when Reggie Johnson tipped home Shane Larkin's miss with 0.8 seconds on the clock, NC State was left wanting with their second last-second loss in conference play. In fact, the Wolfpack's four losses in the ACC have come by a combined seven points. Still, at 5-4, NC State isn't close to where this team needed to be heading to Cameron Indoor Stadium where Duke will be seeking revenge from their loss in Raleigh, but more-importantly trying to maintain contact with 8-0 Miami in the standings.
At the start, I mentioned that in a way, even though all three locals didn't win, I could argue that all three were winners. Here's why…
Thanks to Lorenzo Brown's ankle injury -- and the Wolfpack's slow start with Rodney Purvis trying handle point guard duties -- Mark Gottfried was forced to use Tyler Lewis for 36 minutes. Quickly though, the term "forced" became inaccurate, because it was obvious that with Lewis on the floor NC State looked once again like a formidable offensive team. Lewis just knows how to play the point, and while he still got himself in trouble with over aggressive play at times, he made a lot more positive plays than negative ones. In the end, his line looked impressive with 16 points, five assists and just one turnover, but the most important gain was the amount of confidence in him that his head coach realized over the 36-minute performance that nearly produced a win in a great college basketball environment.
Lewis' afternoon, even in a loss, and even with the knowledge that he's got a lot of work to do on the defensive end of the court, should expand State's bench rotation to seven serious contributors. Lewis' emergence should also allow Gottfried to play him alongside Brown and allow Brown to play off the ball some to take advantage of his offensive creativity from the wing. Even in the loss, and the loss hurts, Lewis' play should give Wolfpack fans a little silver lining to take forward.
It won't completely mask the fact that they're potentially staring at a .500 conference record with eight games left to play -- a situation that they have only themselves and their focus-free play on too many nights to blame -- but, when you project ahead, it just might be the difference between ending the season in March or April. Every once in a while the one step back allows you to take two steps forward.