Whoa, my bad. I'm not sure how that picture from the News & Observer got there. Blogger is acting up like crazy this morning. As I was saying, this might be only a blog, but I still consider myself a journalist, and therefore I need to have some objectivity. So first, I would like to wish both teams a well-played game, and congratulate Roy Williams on the development of his freshmen, and-
Come on Blogger! Enough! UNC IS A PROUD BASKETBALL PROGRAM! IT'S IMPORTANT THAT WE NOT LET THE RIVALRY GET THE BETTER OF US AT SUCH AN EMOTIONAL MOMENT! NOW PLEASE STOP POSTING PHOTOS THAT MAKE IT SEEM LIKE I AM SO FUCKING HAPPY THAT WE JUST TOOK THEM DOWN AT HOME AND THAT NOLAN SMITH IS THE FUCKING MAN AND THAT HOLY GOD WHAT A GAME-
TOO MUCH. THAT LAST PHOTO IS TOO MUCH. I LOVE HIM. NEUTRALITY GONE FOREVER....
Maybe I'm operating on short term memory here, but that was the greatest regular season win I can remember. The absolute greatest. And it seemed pretty improbable at halftime, right? It looked lost. Only the knowledge that Nolan Smith was still wearing a Duke jersey gave me any hope. And it didn't look that would be enough, either. It looked like he'd be a valiant hero in loss.
So the first part of this post is dedicated to the man. I tweeted last night that he's my favorite Dukie ever, and I mean it. When you think about the way he's developed since his freshman year (after almost transferring), the way he had to overcome his father's death at a young age, and the way he's turned into a one-man typhoon on the court, how can you not love him? There's a deep humility to Nolan, and it's at the base of his great talent and his newfound swagger. It's rare to find a college athlete who you really feel has earned greatness over a long journey, but Nolan qualifies. He's tough, he's smart, and he's the finished product of his experiences. You just can't break him down. He's been forged as a warrior, and there is literally not one player in America I'd rather have on my team.
Last night was his reward, and it was our reward too. Before the game, I read a great article about Nolan becoming the face of the personality change in Duke basketball, and this morning Stewart Mandel sang his praises for CNNSI. For at least today, he's the most compelling athlete in the country. But we've known that for a while, haven't we?
Before I get too scattered, here are some thoughts on Nolan in an orderly list form.
1. Enjoy this game. I'm serious, I really implore you to milk the pleasure you get from this game for all it's worth. With the teams I love, I'm a big believer in moments. Think George Bush and Nolan Ryan looking glum when the Yankees came back in Game 1. You're not going to win a title every year, and even though the final loss will always be disappointing, it's important to recognize great things that happen before the end. And trust me, it doesn't get better than this. It really doesn't. The Rangers went on to beat the Yanks. Duke may not win a title. We certainly have our share of weaknesses, and I'll get to those later. This could very well be as good as it gets, and man is it good.
2. You've heard of 'making it rain,' but that stuff's for mortals. I woke up this morning and saw a light dusting on the North Carolina grass. February 9, 2010 was the night Nolan Smith was so cold he made it snow.
3. I'm still in disbelief. We got punched right in the mouth in the first half. Carolina looked like the same team that scored 89 on Florida State, that had won 9 of 10 and looked dominant in the process. With 12 points, Nolan kept us afloat that first half. If there's an unsung element to his game yesterday, it's that initial effort. Great players don't just emerge at the end of games; they have a sense of what they need to do to win at all times. And Nolan knew he had to furiously tread water in that first half. The flow of the game was against us in a big way, and there was a real danger that Carolina would run us off our own floor. But Nolan kept coming, and coming, and by his example we absorbed the body blows without crumpling.
4. And then that glorious second half. The explosion. The divine 20 minutes when Carolina didn't know what to do with themselves, when the full power of Cameron Indoor Stadium was brought to bear on crushing an opponent who, it turned out, really wasn't ready to compete in that atmosphere. Nolan was relentless, a force of nature uncontainable. 22 points, 8-11 from the field, and 5-7 from the line. It's the greatest half I've ever seen from him. The Heels couldn't get out of their own way. The best player on the court took over.
5. He has made my pantheon. I've given it some thought, and it's time to make it official. Nolan is now one of three athletes I revere beyond all others. These superlative dudes combine great ability, a work ethic that dwarfs their contemporaries, and, most especially, the kind of resonant, timeless spirit that underlines their experience and permits every fan a glimpse at a rare kind of soul. Pardon me if my prose is turning purple before your eyes, but these guys are a different breed, and they make watching sports an experience deeper than just following a game. This whole analysis is subjective beyond reason, and each person will have their own heroes. But for me, bound by the enigmatic criteria hatched from the interaction of chemicals and memories and the vagaries of my particular (and strange) version of humanity, these three are the tops. Welcome, Nolan.
That's a hell of a trio. Moving on, last night was a great one for twitter. I gained about 40 followers, and I think most of them were the direct or indirect result of people commenting on the title of this blog. Seth Curry Saves Duke. It seemed pretty appropriate at times, didn't it? If Nolan was the savior, Seth was his tireless disciple. Maybe Peter? I don't know my apostles very well. In any case, his 22 points were every bit as necessary as Nolan's heroics. 18 of them came in the second half, at crunch time, when he went 6-8 from the field and 4-5 from the line. While Dawkins became a shrinking violet, and Singler seemed dead set on shooting us out of the game, he came up with a scoring binge that defined the comeback. Just like Nolan's 34 points, his 22 was a (Duke) career high. Let's look at his second half baskets. Try to find a single one that was insignificant.
1. 17:27. 3-pointer - brought Duke within 6, 37-43.
2. 14:54. Offensive board and jumper - kept Duke within 6, 49-43.
3. 13:46. Jumper - Duke within 4, 47-51.
4. 10:51. 3-pointer - Duke back within 4, 50-54.
5. 10:10. 2-pointer - Duke within 2, 52-54.
6. 9:45. 2-pointer - Duke's first tie since 0-0, 54-54.
7. 4:56. 2 foul shots - Pushes us out to 2-possession lead, 64-60.
8. 0:08. Ice time foul shots - Ends the game, 79-73.
They were all great, but the flurry in the middle sent the Cameron Crazies over the top and re-defined the game. The score was 54-47 Carolina. Within one minute, Seth had scored 7 points on his own to tie it up. After that, I turned to my friend Andrew and said "this game is over." I almost immediately wished I hadn't said it, and I spent the rest of the game chewing my nails and hoping I hadn't jinxed anything, but the feeling was undeniable. By tying the game, Seth Curry had won it for us. The 16-point deficit was history. Carolina was not coming back from that. Not at Cameron.
Before I get to player grades, a few more quick thoughts about the game.
A. This has already become a well-chewed bit of analysis, but could those two halves have been any different? 43-29 UNC in the first, 50-30 Duke in the second. But let's look at rebounds: 27-18 UNC in the first, 23-20 Duke in the second. That's the real puzzle, to me. We looked totally beat down low in the first half, and that was the main reason for my pessimism about the game in general. What changed? How did Zeller get only 4 rebounds in the second half after grabbing 9 in the first? Where did Henson go? It would probably be more evident if I watched the game again, but I think the emotions were too raw for me to pay much attention to that facet at the time.
B. Much respect to Tyler Zeller and Kendall Marshall. Those guys never lost their cool, and they deserve a tip of the cap. Zeller ate us alive in the first half, and still scored 11 despite a lesser presence on the boards in the second. By the end of the game, Marshall seemed like the only Tar Heel who wanted the ball. Also, I vastly underestimated his ability to penetrate. Marshall is pure quality, and I do not look forward to seeing him for the next 4 years.
C. I cannot stand Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock. They make me sick to even look at. As I mentioned yesterday, I like Marshall and Henson, and I respect Zeller. But Barnes and Bullock? I didn't realize the extent of my dislike until yesterday. The arrogance and the constant grinning make me physically repulsed. Bullock is the worst. I can foresee a future where I come around on Barnes, but Bullock, to me, is is loathsome. Granted, this feeling started when he ran his mouth about Duke in that interview before the season. But I'm pretty sure I'd hate him anyway. And on his bad shooting days, he's borderline cancerous to his team. His 0-5 showing yesterday absolutely murdered his team. Four of those were 3s, and all of them were wide open. That's karma, baby.
D. The win itself was gigantic. We may have a very difficult game on our hands when we visit Carolina in early March, but this gives us a firm grip on the ACC regular season title. At 9-1, our most difficult remaining game comes at Virginia Tech. But if we can run the table before visiting the Dean Dome, the worst possible finish is a tie for first. And that's assuming Carolina wins out. I have no idea how this game will affect that team's psyche. In fact, I'm pretty interested to find out. But let's put it this way: I can't see them having zero ill effects. I'm keeping a really close eye on this weekend's road game at Clemson. The post-loss let-down is very much in play.
E. My girlfriend's analysis, just now: "I think between the two fight songs, Duke's is way better. Carolina's sounds like a carnival song, or something, like you're trying to win a big teddy bear." I just listened, and she's exactly right; I feel like I'm at a circus.
I realize I'm probably sorely testing your patience with the length of this post, so I'll go through a few grades and take my leave on this wonderful, shimmering Thursday.
Showtime: Jesus. That's right, his grade is "Jesus." He's surpassed the letter system. It doesn't apply to him any more. He now gets graded on the Jesus/Gandhi scale, and the final grade depends on whether he's brilliant, or religiously brilliant. Player of the Year, gang. The campaign starts now.
The Koala Apostle: A++. We've covered this ground. He stepped into the fire and came out golden.
Boom Radley: D. Really, an unmitigated disaster. And here's the problem: I don't think this was a fluke. In college basketball, there aren't very many teams who can put a tall, quick defender on Singler. When it does happen, he almost invariably has trouble. Last night, Barnes and Henson gave him nightmares. I think they'll do the same thing when we play again. 3-17 was the final shot total, and a lot of those were fadeaways where it seemed like our man was begging for the shot not to be blocked. He was on the defensive all game, and aside from his 8 boards, he didn't contribute much to the effort. Credit to the Carolina defenders and Roy Williams; they knew how to take him out of the equation. My friend Nick made a great point at the end of the game- it was a terrible night for Singler's NBA prospects. Even more terrible, the Heels showed exactly how to slow him down. Not every team is going to have a Barnes/Henson type defender to spare, but those that do will give us headaches.
Plumdog Billionaire B-. If you'd told me at the end of the first half that I'd be giving him a B- by the end of the game, I would have kissed you on the mouth. And that wouldn't be good for anyone. In the opening 20, he grabbed 3 boards, scored 0 points, and was absolutely abysmal on defense. The two problems I pointed out yesterday- going for stupid steals and trying for dramatic blocks- submarined our interior efforts. Zeller and Henson scored easy basket after easy basket, combining for 23 points and 15 boards. On offense, Mason either traveled, threw bad passes, or put up disgustingly ugly shots. But at halftime, something changed. The rebounding totals weren't much better, and he only scored 2 points, but he played smart and his defense improved exponentially. I have no idea how to explain this. Believe me, I was ready to crucify him today. I was compiling a litany of reasons why he murdered us in my head.
PlumbleBee the Lesser: B-. See above. The odd dichotomy applies here, too. He was actually solid in the second half after doing everything in his power to screw things up in the first.
The White Raven: C. Rough game for the Raven, that one clutch 3 aside. He ended up 1-7 from the field with 7 boards and 3 blocks. By the second half, he seemed out-gunned on the court. Carolina's big men are too athletic and strong, and it was clear RyKell couldn't stay with them as the game wore on. And that's fine; we knew his strength improved this season, but we also knew it had to improve some more. Last night showed us exactly where he's deficient. It doesn't mean he can't fill an important role, and if he'd hit a couple of his three-point attempts, he would have been very valuable. But his limitations have been laid bare.
Young Threezy: C. Is it time to throw in the towel on Baby Dawk? He just doesn't assert himself when he has a chance; in 15 minutes of playing time, he took three shots. No boards, no assists, 2 turnovers, 1 steal. It's like he's content just to sit on the perimeter and hope the other guys forget to guard him. The whole thing is hard to watch, especially when a lot of us had very high expectations.
The Thorn: C Not much to say here. Coach K hoped he could slow down Marshall, so he started the game. After three minutes, it was pretty evident that he couldn't do the job, and he didn't play again. So much for that, I guess.
Team Defense: B+. In the first 9 minutes, Carolina scored 25 points. That's about 3 points per minute. They were on pace for more than 100. In the last 31, they scored 48. That's about 1.5 points per minute, exactly half their previous pace. Whatever adjustments were made, they worked. We were very fortunate about two things. First, Carolina stopped forcing the ball down low. I have a feeling Roy is going to get burned in Chapel Hill today for going away from Zeller and Henson in the second half. Second, Carolina couldn't shoot. Their 2-14 team effort from 3 was killer. A few daggers somewhere along the way might have buried Duke for good, but the big shot never fell.
That is all for today. Go out, enjoy the morning, enjoy the afternoon, enjoy the night. The Heels came, they saw, and they left with their tail between their legs. They'll have something very serious to prove on March 5th, but for now the good guys have a firm grip on the conference title. It's a great day to be a Devil. Go. Duke.