DURHAM, N.C. --- Roy Williams tried to grind his way through the postgame news conference. His Tar Heels had just squandered a 10-point halftime lead at Cameron Indoor Stadium and lost to archrival Duke by the same margin, 74-64.
He stared at the tabletop before him and spoke of "aliens taking over the bodies" of his players in the second half. He was so depressed he never even uttered a single dadgumit.
Mike Krzyzewski took the same seat a few minutes later, as buoyant as Coach K ever is. Just one month earlier, his team was the one that had done the collapsing, blowing a halftime lead in Chapel Hill. But Saturday night he made eye contact with reporters and yucked it up as he recalled the "take the piano off your backs" talk he gave his squad at the break. He was so giddy he never even scowled once.
As February started, Duke was reeling and North Carolina was rolling. Heck, just one week ago, UNC was daydreaming about nailing down a No. 2 seed in next week's ACC tournament and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney after that.
But over the past five days, the Heels have lost on not one, but two senior nights. On Tuesday night in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels took to their home floor to face Miami with an unmistakably confident stride.
Perhaps too confident.
They trailed the Hurricanes the entire game, only to tie the score for the first time with four seconds left and then have a stake driven through their hearts. On Saturday night they had a chance to spoil Duke's farewell party for lightning rod Grayson Allen but failed to take advantage of the senior's admittedly adrenaline- and emotion-driven mistakes.
Now the Heels will be a (gulp) 6-seed in Brooklyn. If their seniors want to reach their third ACC final in four years, they will have to win three games, all played in late-night time slots. ("They're not going to make the paper all week," one Tobacco Road scribe observed.) After their ninth loss of the season, ESPN's Joe Lunardi still had UNC listed as a 2 seed in the West, but as the Tar Heels left the floor in Durham, the ice beneath their Jordans felt mighty thin.
"Now you just hope to hit the reset button and be ready to go after all this," UNC senior guard Joel Berry II said from his cramped Cameron Indoor locker. "I guess you have to look at it as, OK, we have to play more games, so maybe we can work through what we need to before we get to the NCAAs."
Added fellow senior Theo Pinson, laughing: "That's a nice way to look at it. What will force us to focus is that, guess what? You don't play well now, you make the mistakes we've made this week, and your season will be over."
Across the court, the victors weren't speaking of the future. They were all about the here and now.
Actually, they were all about the second half. In the first 20 minutes, Duke was 4-of-14 from the free throw line and 1-of-10 from beyond the 3-point arc. Allen was playing totally out of control and Marvin Bagley III had a mere three points.
In the second half, the Blue Devils shot 60 percent from the field, 53 percent on 3-pointers and missed only one of six free throws. Bagley finished with 21 points, joined in double figures by Gary Trent Jr. (13) and Allen (15). Said Krzyzewski: "[Bagley] had one stretch where that was as good as you will ever see a college basketball player perform."
Said Bagley: "There were a lot of goals tonight. You always want to beat Carolina, but especially here. You want to be in the best position when the tournaments start. But really, we just wanted to give Grayson the senior night he deserved. You could feel that in the whole building. That was as loud as I have ever heard it in here."
Allen was appreciative.
"That was the perfect last night at Cameron," Allen said, smiling, then catching himself. "As long as we ignore how I played in the first half. Marvin is right. That's the loudest I've ever heard it in here."
Williams, after his 15th game at Cameron Indoor Stadium as a head coach, agreed. That noise still hadn't died down even as he continued to power through his media Q&A, the door to his right left open to so as to let in the "GRAY-SON! GRAY-SON!" chant as Allen gave his senior night speech to the 9,314 packed into the old gym on the other side of the wall.
"It's the greatest rivalry in sports," he said, his record in the series now 13-19. "But it's greater when we win."
With the news conference done, Williams made the long walk beneath the Cameron bleachers and through the lobby en route to the visitors locker room to make the eight-mile bus ride back home to Chapel Hill.
"Hey, Coach!" a body paint-covered Duke student shouted as the Hall of Famer walked by. "Welcome to March!"