COLUMN: Why can't UNC stop the "big run"?

Jamie Cherry stood on the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium, hands on her hips and frustration on her face, as her final regular-season game crumbled around her.

It was only the third quarter, but it was as good as over for North Carolina. The Tar Heels had committed two turnovers, both off Cherry passes, and Duke had converted both into easy buckets. Moments later, Rebecca Greenwell would hit one of her seven three-pointers and Lexie Brown would convert a wide-open layup to punctuate a 19-0 Blue Devil run, catalyzing yet another blowout loss for UNC.

Cherry had seen this script play out so many times in the three years prior: the Tar Heels challenge early, flirt with momentum and then succumb to the inevitable run that clinches yet another ACC loss.

This time, in Sunday's 70-54 loss to Duke, UNC (14-14, 4-12 ACC) challenged the Blue Devils (22-7, 11-5 ACC) for two quarters and entered halftime down just two points. But Duke freely launched its assault in the third quarter — settling the score from its January loss at Carmichael Arena — as Cherry and her teammates helplessly watched the regular season slip away.

"If it wasn't for that third quarter," head coach Sylvia Hatchell said, "we'd have given them a game."

Jamie Cherry (10) had a team-high 20 points and six assists, including a team-best five threes and three free throws. But it wasn't enough to overcome Duke's crippling run in the third quarter. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

Jamie Cherry (10) had a team-high 20 points and six assists, including a team-best five threes and three free throws. But it wasn't enough to overcome Duke's crippling run in the third quarter. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

This Tar Heel team is talented, led by two dynamic veterans on the perimeter and an award-winning freshman down low. Add a five-star guard on the wing, shooters off the bench and a Hall of Fame coach on the bench, and it's no surprise UNC beat a ranked Duke team in January and nearly downed No. 4 Louisville a week ago.

But in all 12 of their conference losses this year, the Tar Heels have allowed a double-digit run to spell their demise. It's happened for three years since the mass transfers in 2015 — and it's happened nine straight games now after that seemingly inspirational win over Duke in Carmichael Arena, where UNC actually overcame a 19-point deficit to win in overtime.

No, this isn't a championship team. At its peak, it might not even be an NCAA Tournament team. But it's better than this.

"We can play some pretty good basketball, at times," Hatchell said. "We're just not that consistent."

Complacency has struck this team before, but the Tar Heels were fully engaged on Sunday before a raucous Cameron crowd. They looked every bit as good as the Blue Devils for 20 minutes...before the 19-0 run ended any dreams of a season sweep.

So why does this keep happening?

Jocelyn Jones (4) was just one of UNC's bench players who couldn't get it going in relief against Duke on Sunday. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

Jocelyn Jones (4) was just one of UNC's bench players who couldn't get it going in relief against Duke on Sunday. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

Two years ago, the answer was easy: depth and inexperience. Hatchell relied on a primarily six-player rotation after the injury of former All-ACC forward Xylina McDaniel, leaving a crew of mostly freshmen and walk-ons to fight through runaway deficits and a first-round exit in the ACC Tournament.

Last year, it was injuries and interior deficiencies. UNC simply didn't have enough size to deter post players for 40 minutes, and they didn't have enough capable bench players to overcome foul trouble late in games.

But what's the issue this year? Janelle Bailey, a frontrunner for ACC Freshman of the Year, has been a revelation in the post on both sides of the ball. Redshirt junior Paris Kea, a first-team All-ACC member, is setting records on pace with all-time great Carolina guards, and Cherry has already proved herself as one. Even without injured guards Stephanie Watts and Destinee Walker, UNC has consistently played seven players at least 10 minutes per game, all capable options for stretches.

After Sunday's loss, Hatchell hearkened back to leadership and inexperience. She's said it all year after tough losses: this team is young, with just one senior, one active junior and four freshmen in the rotation. It's a stark contrast to the other side, where Duke's top two seniors, Greenwell and Brown, combined for 53 points — including 11 of 19 during the game-changing run.

"When a team goes on a run like that," Hatchell said, "we don't have someone who can stop the bleeding out there."

But that reasoning doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Experience isn't determined by year or age; it's built through playing time. And Hatchell has thrown her players into the fire more than any other coach in the country: Cherry, Kea and sophomore Taylor Koenen have all averaged more minutes this year than anyone in the ACC. It was the same case with last year's team.

Paris Kea (22) has scored double-digit points in nearly every game this season. But she struggled against Duke's zone in Sunday's loss and couldn't stop the bleeding during a defining third-quarter run. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

Paris Kea (22) has scored double-digit points in nearly every game this season. But she struggled against Duke's zone in Sunday's loss and couldn't stop the bleeding during a defining third-quarter run. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

Cherry is one of the best leaders this program has seen, and Kea is a rangy defender and crafty offensive player who can slow the game down on either side of the ball. To criticize on-court leadership is a disservice to the two players who have so often put UNC in its best position to win.

In Cherry's view, UNC's defense is the weak link during these critical runs. It makes sense: the Blue Devils scored 15 points in the first four minutes of the third quarter. Greenwell scored 15 points in the third quarter alone, many of her shots coming with Cherry as her defender.

"Our defense," Cherry said, "it wasn't where it was supposed to be."

But isn't that what adjustments are for? Basketball is always a game of runs, as each team counters what the other presents. Yet when opponents start to go on a run, North Carolina lacks a counter. As Greenwell, 6-foot-1, torched UNC on the perimeter, the Tar Heels kept the 5-foot-8 Cherry on her for most possessions and stuck to a scheme that clearly wasn't working.

North Carolina's defense was stout for the two quarters prior, denying passing lanes and playing disciplined on-ball defense. It only relaxed immediately after halftime, as the Blue Devils drove and forced UNC to collapse, leaving open shooters galore. By the time Hatchell threw out a zone look in the fourth quarter, it was already too late.

It felt as though Duke had a plan after intermission and the Tar Heels didn't.

North Carolina combined for 12 missed shots and turnovers during that third-quarter run, and Duke capitalized with 11 points off turnovers in the quarter. That's an offensive issue at its core, and the eye test confirmed as much. UNC didn't score a second-half point until the 3:36 mark of the third quarter, when Bailey scored her first bucket since the first quarter.

It was emblematic of the Tar Heels' scoring woes: they stopped feeding the post and essentially quit attacking Duke's zone at all. They didn't thread passes inside or run on-ball screens to force defenders to react. Instead, they whipped the ball around the perimeter and hoped the Blue Devils wouldn't catch up to it.

"The pressure bothered us a little bit," Hatchell said, "and we just got really unorganized."

Janelle Bailey (44) has scored at will this season. But the Tar Heels couldn't find her through Duke's zone in Sunday's loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

Janelle Bailey (44) has scored at will this season. But the Tar Heels couldn't find her through Duke's zone in Sunday's loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

It's what happens so often with this Tar Heel team, now and for years. The offense becomes stagnant and players resort to isolation dribbling or aimless perimeter passing. At times, it looks like they aren't even running offensive sets — and even if they are, that says something.

In the middle of Sunday's third-quarter run, Hatchell used one of her timeouts to settle her team. She subbed in freshman guard Leah Church — who helped fuel that home comeback win over Duke — to stretch the defense and scripted the next offensive possession for her team. Sure enough, the Tar Heels forced the ball to the high post, where Bailey caught it and immediately found a wide-open Koenen on the wing. The play design was a success.

She missed, as shooters do. After that, the Tar Heels started chucking threes to no avail, sometimes within seconds of gaining possession. It only served to further dig their grave, with the Blue Devils gleefully shoveling away on the other end.

"I've only got so many timeouts," Hatchell said.

It wasn't all schematic; the Tar Heels' in-game decision-making was suspect, too. Kea forced some ill-advised no-look passes and scored just nine points as she battles a foot injury. Koenen scored three points and led UNC with seven turnovers after coughing it up a team-high six times three days earlier against Syracuse. Freshman starter Jaelynn Murray was nearly absent from the box score, and Church forced too many contested shots in her 25 minutes of action.

The only true bright spot was Cherry, whose 20 points and six assists led the team in her final regular-season game. But it couldn't deter her anguish during Duke's inevitable run, one that all but epitomized her North Carolina career.

Another mid-game collapse in Sunday's loss to Duke was a familiar sight to Jamie Cherry (10), who's endured plenty of them in her four-year North Carolina career. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

Another mid-game collapse in Sunday's loss to Duke was a familiar sight to Jamie Cherry (10), who's endured plenty of them in her four-year North Carolina career. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

To be clear: the Tar Heels weren't supposed to win on Sunday. They weren't supposed to win most any of the games in the ACC schedule for the past three years. But they can, and they nearly do. Had their losses been blowouts from the start or nail-biting losses, it'd be a mark of pride. But they almost always seem to fall apart after a crippling run, equipped with explanations after the game. And that should never become commonplace.

As the No. 12 seed in the ACC Tournament, UNC is the presumptive favorite in Wednesday's postseason opener in Greensboro against No. 13 seed Boston College (7-22, 2-14 ACC), with the winner facing fifth-seeded N.C. State on Thursday. But the Eagles beat UNC earlier this season, and it wouldn't shock anyone if they did so again.

Maybe they'll strike in the second or third quarter, pulling away from a more talented Tar Heel team yet again. Maybe, in the postgame press conference, North Carolina will chalk it up to leadership or inexperience or injuries or depth. Maybe Cherry will stand in the Greensboro Coliseum, where she's had some of her most impressive highlights, and wonder what more she could have done.

Or maybe the Tar Heels will have one last run in them, on Wednesday and beyond. Surely they're experienced enough with those already.

@CJacksonCowart

Photos by Gabi Palacio