Duke 92, North Carolina 90: Free Throws Ain’t Free

If you woke up this morning without having watched Duke’s 92-90 overtime victory over bitter rival North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium last night, you may have thought you missed some great basketball. But while the game itself was exciting and tense, you’d have been dead wrong.

Last night’s marquee matchup was anything but quality basketball. We saw unfathomably horrid turnovers with the game on the line, putrid offensive sets, missing-in-action defense, pathetic clock management … and most obvious of all, missed free throws. Lots and lots of missed free throws.

It was almost as if there was a hex put on the foul line at Cameron Indoor last night. Heading in to the game, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels were neck and neck from the foul line, both shooting around 69 percent, good for fifth and sixth in the ACC. Last night, they shot a combined 28-51 — a ghastly 55 percent.

More baffling, the biggest of misses seemed to come from the best foul shooters on the floor. Duke’s senior-freshman backcourt combo of Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones are college basketball’s most automatic duo from the line, with Quinn entering the game shooting 90 percent and Johnson at 87 percent on the season. Yet inexplicably, Quinn went just 2-4 from the line last night, with both misses coming in overtime, both with the chance to put his Blue Devils up three. Add in a rare miss by Jones, and the duo that never misses actually missed three times from the line. Weird.

But the missed free throw bug didn’t just bite Duke’s premier charity stripe assassins. In the final five minutes of regulation, with the Tar Heels slowly losing their grip on a seemingly insurmountable lead, Nate Britt, himself a 90 percent free throw shooter heading in to the contest, missed two crucial foul shots. For the game, Carolina’s best foul shooter from the line went just 3-6 from the stripe, though the final miss in overtime was intentional.

Add in a critical miss by Brice Johnson with 39 seconds left and the chance to put the Heels up by three, and you have yourself a remarkable late-game meltdown. Following Johnson’s miss, Tyus Jones tied the game and sent things to overtime.

It was Carolina’s impotence at the line to end the game that allowed Duke to hang around and force overtime, and it was Duke’s foul-shooting follies that gave UNC a chance in OT. During the extra five-minute session, the Blue Devils missed an alarming six foul shots — three by Jahlil Okafor, two by Cook and one by Justise Winslow. Speaking of Okafor and Winslow, the two combined to shoot just 3-12 from the line … with Okafor putting up the 0-6 goose egg. Throw in Amile Jefferson’s 3-6 night, and it’s no wonder the Blue Devils shot just 51.6 percent from the charity stripe last night.

As for the Tar Heels, they weren’t much better. With Britt’s surprising 50 percent night from the line combined with 50 percent shooting from Kennedy Meeks and J.P. Tokoto, Carolina shot just 60 percent on free throws overall.

Never mind Roy Williams’ typical, laughable end-of-game offensive calls and his absurd lack of using his timeouts, and never mind the exchange of baffling turnovers and insane shots by both teams in the waning moments of regulation and overtime. This game was ugly as sin, and you have to look no further than the foul line.

While exciting and close and fun, living up to the rivalry billing Duke-UNC has become known for, that display from the stripe proved once again just how inferior the college game is to the NBA.

I know there are hordes and hordes of basketball fans who prefer the college game over the NBA, and I myself absolutely love college basketball. In fact, the NCAA Tournament is pretty much my favorite thing on the entire planet.

But let’s be honest, people who like college basketball — or any college sport, for that matter — don’t like it because of the quality of play, no matter what their complaints are about NBA players being “lazy” and “selfish” and “undisciplined.” They like college basketball better because it’s more relatable and has more upsets, because of traditions and school allegiances — not because the game is actually better. It’s not, and if you think otherwise, you’re simply delusional.

If you are a basketball fan who loves basketball for the way it’s played, you cannot even remotely say the college game is better than the NBA. This is obvious, given that the NBA has the best talent in the world with the best basketball players on earth, yet you’ll still hear arguments to the contrary.

One of the easiest areas to point out the clear difference between the level of play at the collegiate level vs. the pros is at the foul line. Teams simply don’t miss free throws nearly as often in the NBA, and games are rarely won or lost due to ineptitude at the line. It happens, but not often. In reality, if a game comes down to free throws in the NBA, it comes down to a few misses here and there, not a team shooting 50 percent from the line like we saw last night between two of college basketball’s elite programs. It’s one of the many differences between the level play, but Duke’s victory last night brought this particular point back in my mind very clearly.

It was also a reminder that while no one guards the shooter, a free throw is anything but free. Nate Britt and Tar Heels fans the nation over can sure as shit attest to that this morning.

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