North Carolina's Identity Issues in the Past After Beating Archrival Duke

C.J. MooreCollege Basketball National Lead WriterFebruary 21, 2014

Bob Donnan/USA Today

CHAPEL HILL, NC — Forget P.J. Hairston. Forget Belmont. Forget UAB. Forget early January.

A season once defined by controversy and wild, inexplicable, unbelievable old news.

Roy Williams gathered his troops on Thursday night for a battle inside the Dean Dome, and the team with the expectations and the lofty ranking wasn't able to fight back when it mattered most.

North Carolina took fifth-ranked Duke's best shot for a half, dusted itself off and smacked around the Blue Devils in the final minutes of a 74-66 win that should end up as a defining moment in Williams' best reclamation project.

Feb 20, 2014; Chapel Hill, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels guard Marcus Paige (5) and forward J.P. Tokoto (13) force Duke Blue Devils guard Quinn Cook (2) into a jump ball as guard Nate Britt (0) looks on. The Tar Heels defeated the Blue Devils 74-66 at
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

"I just love kids that just keep playing," Williams said. "Just keep coming at ya. Just keep coming at ya. Just keep coming at ya."

That's a simplistic, yet poetic way to describe what he's built back up. 

These aren't Roy Williams' Tar Heels. Not the ones that play beautiful basketball, run and gun and score before you know what hit you.

These guys just hit you.

"We've identified who we are as a team," Marcus Paige said. "We're not a team that's going to have a three-point assault and knock down 15 threes in one game. We're going to pound the ball inside and we're going to grind it out defensively, run when we can and we're not going to try to be somebody we're not, try to get into a shooting contest with anybody."

No, that's Duke.

The Blue Devils came into this game with an offense that was scoring at a historic pace and had arguably the two best players on the court in Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood.

A pretty game would have been won by the Blue Devils. And they're talented enough to keep winning that way. 

But when the final minutes came down to getting stops and just willing the ball into the basket, it was all Heels.

"We looked tired or we didn't have life," Mike Krzyzewski said. "No matter what we did in a timeout, we just didn't have that spark. That spark, that anger, the emotion..."

At times, that's all the Tar Heels have.

Williams has a team that struggles to make outside shots or even free throws. On this night, they made just two threes, which isn't that far off the season average (3.9).

It's really, really hard to win with a team that cannot make outside shots. But Williams has convinced this group that none of that matters if they do what they do well—score in the paint, rebound the dickens out of it and contest shots.

Feb 20, 2014; Chapel Hill, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams reacts in the second half. The Tar Heels defeated the Blue Devils 74-66 at Dean E. Smith Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Ol' Roy even has a few tricks up his sleeve too. He mixed in some zone defenses in the second half that left the Blue Devils confused and hoping they could bail themselves out with some deep jumpers. They made just 5-of-22 threes, their second-worst shooting percentage from distance all season.

When those shots didn't fall, the Blue Devils looked lost.

When the same happens for the Tar Heels, they bide their time and usually Paige comes through in the end.

UNC's leading scorer went scoreless in the first half. He ended up with 13, scoring nine of UNC's final 21 points down the stretch.

"He knows what he needs to do," said Leslie McDonald, who broke out of a slump and kept UNC in the game with 21 points. "I think he's done a marvelous job of doing what he needs to do and he knows when to turn it on."

So too do his teammates, apparently. In the span of four days now, the Heels have rallied from a 15-point deficit (at Florida State) and from down 11 against Duke.

Think those are tough spots to be in? They've seen worse.

"At one point, we were 1-4 (in the ACC) and everyone doubted us," James Michael McAdoo said. "Then we started rolling and we started buying in and we started listening to what Coach wants us to do and now we're on a roll."

That roll (or winning streak) extended to eight games on Thursday night.

And as crazy as it sounds to say this about a team that's lost to Belmont (at home!), UAB and Wake Forest, the Tar Heels are playing at a top-10 level.

The early-season wins (against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky) are starting to seem more real than the head-scratcher losses.

If you think that's an overreaction to one win, ask yourself this: Would you want your favorite team to match up with UNC in March?

Didn't think so.

The drama, the inconsistency and the losing streak hardened this group.

The Tar Heels are back. And to Williams' delight, they're going to keep coming at ya.


C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.