CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Duke-North Carolina has always been the gold standard for rivalry games in college basketball.
But this season has been different and difficult for both elite programs.
Normally, this game is for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but neither team is close to unbeaten Virginia in the standings. This was about royalty in crisis.
The Tar Heels, coming off a national championship season, are a team searching for a confidence building win after going through an uncharacteristic three game ACC losing streak midway the month of January and dropping to 21 in the AP poll. Duke, which started the season as pre-season No. 1, has five starters who could play in the NBA next season but four of them are freshmen and their defensive flaws have become noticeable in the last two weeks.
UNC (18-7, 7-5) looked like it finally found its way here last night, rallying from a 12-point deficit on the strength of a 16-2 run in the first four minutes of the second half to defeat ninth-ranked Duke, 82-78, before a sellout crowd of at the Smith Center in a game that always seems to live up to its hype. Senior point guard Joel Berry scored 21 points and had six assists and junior guard Kenny Williams scored 20 and made six threes for the Tar Heels, who put four players in double figures with a small lineup and out rebounded the bigger Blue Devils, 28-17 in the second half 44-38 for the game.
“We needed this one after what we had gone through the past month,’’ Kenny Williams said. “Once everybody got going, we proved how good we can be.’’
This had to be a relief to Roy Williams’ system. Duke had won four of the previous six games played in this building and seven of the previous 10 overall in the series.
“I told the TV guys at the shoot around, if we win they aren’t going to give us a trophy,’’ UNC’s Hall of Fame coach said. “If we lose they hopefully aren’t going to fire me. It’s one game, but it’s a big game. I always say it’s the biggest game because, and the players repeat it to me, it’s today’s game. You don’t have to say any more than that about the Duke game. We have, I have, the team has so much respect for them. I was sick when they lost to St. John’s because I knew they would be even more fired up, but our guys were pretty fired up too.’’
This was the third loss in the last four games for the Blue Devils (19-5, 7-4), whose talented, young freshmen found out the hard way how intense this neighborhood rivalry can be when played 10 miles from its Durham campus, especially when the other team starts five upperclassmen.
Duke looked like it was going to have its way with Carolina inside in the first half with its size and length, getting 30 points and 49 points by dumping the ball into the paint to 6-11 freshman Marvin Bagley III, 6-10 freshman Wendell Carter Jr. and 6-11 sophomore Marquis Bolden.
Bagley, who could be the first pick in this year’s NBA draft. finished with 15 points and 16 rebounds.
But Carolina turned the game around in the second half when versatile 6-6 senior wing Theo Pinson, who has played all five positions, shut down Bagley, holding him without a shot for 10 minutes and just one field goal in the final 13 minutes of the game.
“I’ve played against bigger guys before,’’ Pinson said. “I went up against (Florida State’s 7-1 center Michael) Ojo last year. Against Duke, everybody crashed the boards. We told them at halftime, ‘Luke (Maye) and I will do everything we can to keep Bagley and Carter away from the basket. Every else has to gang rebound.’’
Carolina dissected Duke’s defense for 27 points in the final two minutes of the first half and first eight minutes of the second half when they took a 61-51 lead. The Blue Devils lost its way after they fell behind, abandoning their earlier strategy and taking only two 2-point field goal attempts in the last 11 ½ minutes.
Coaching one and dones can’t be easy, even for someone like Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has one national championship in 2015 using that method but built his reputation with four year players. There is so much uncertainty.
The Heels were relentless, coming away with 15 offensive rebounds in the final 15 minutes. On one possession with less than four minutes to play, they grabbed four offensive rebounds, ending with a scramble for a loose ball that resulted in a tie up with the arrow pointing to Carolina.
“They really got after it on the boards,’’ Krzyzewski said. “That’s what they do. Even the perimeter guys, Our initial defense was pretty good and then you give up second chances and it means you are on defense for a long time.’’
Duke made one last gasp attempt to steal the game, cutting Carolina’s lead to 74-71 and freshman Gary Trent Jr. missed a corner jump for the tie with 3:33. But Cam Johnson, the Pitt transfer, responded with a huge three to give the Tar Heels the separation they needed.