Four minutes into the latest chapter in the Duke-North Carolina rivalry, it looked like the game was headed for a Blue Devils blowout.
Not so fast, said the Tar Heels with their deeper rotation of reserves.
And then, after 40 minutes – it wasn’t enough. Five more minutes, one period of overtime, were needed to decide the victor.
In the end, No. 4 Duke did win, 92-90, just as it first appeared destined a few minutes after tipoff. The way the game played out though, was much more riveting.
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“It felt magical,” Jahlil Okafor said.
With the score knotted at 81, a second jump ball was tossed at midcourt. The overtime period followed the script that proceeded it, just in condensed form – both teams traded baskets as any type of separation, no matter how small, proved temporary. Back-and-forth, with Four lead changes before a final one ultimately turned the game in the Blue Devils’ favor.
The No. 15 Tar Heels lost Brice Johnson, and his 18 points and 12 rebounds, on the third possession of overtime, as he fouled out. That was a significant loss, as UNC (18-8, 8-5 ACC) had consistent success going to its starting frontcourt—Johnson and Meeks shot a combined 15-of-20 from the field and 6-of-9 from the line.
Okafor scored the basket that would put Duke ahead for good—an in-tight lay-in that put Duke up 90-89. Quinn Cook made one of two free throws once UNC started to foul, and with the Tar Heels Trailing 91-89, J.P Tokoto missed a 10-foot jump shot from the left corner, giving the Blue Devils back possession with 5.2 seconds left. The Tar Heels squatted around the paint with their heads down, waiting for the formality of more free throws.
Okafor finished with 13 points, 12 rebounds and one rolled left ankle.
That was the scariest moment of all for the Blue Devils (23-3, 10-3), with their prized freshman lying on his back in pain with 3:41 left in the first half. The Tar Heels had overcome a disastrous start—“brain dead” was how Roy Williams described his team in the opening—to cut a 20-8 deficit to 40-36. Okafor went up for a shot attempt and landed awkwardly on Joel James’s foot, falling to the ground in pain. Mike Krzyzewski hurried over with the trainer, and Tyus Jones stood next to his best friend’s side. Okafor walked off the court with help and headed straight to the locker room.
“I didn’t know how bad it was, and I was more scared than anything,” Okafor said. “My trainers took me to the back, and they worked on it a little bit. It really helped me out.”
He was back before the half ended, receiving a large ovation from the Cameron Indoor Stadium faithful. His return was shortly followed by back-to-back 3s from Quinn Cook and Matt Jones, giving Duke a 49-36 lead.
That would be the largest Duke advantage on the night.
Unlikely contributions from reserves Nate Britt and Joel James kept UNC within striking distance in the first half. Isaiah Hicks and Joel Berry also logged 20-plus minutes off the bench, part of a nine-man rotation that ensured the Tar Heels would have fresher legs in the second half.
Those legs spurred a 13-0 and a 9-0 run for the Tar Heels in the second half. Duke’s sloppiness with the ball (16 turnovers) and struggles on the defensive glass (UNC grabbed 19 offensive rebounds) allowed UNC to come back and then some, as the Tar Heels had a 77-67 lead with 3:50 left in the game. The Tar Heels consistently beat Duke in transition in the second half, with a hobbled Okafor and Tyus Jones visibly gassed at times.
But as the Blue Devils’ coaches urged them to “forget about tired” down the stretch, the young guns found a final (regulation) surge.
And 11-2 run was required for Duke to force overtime, erasing a seven-point deficit over the final one minute, 33 seconds of the second half. Tyus Jones scored nine of those points—there’s a reason Duke spent three years recruiting no point guard other than him, Krzyzewski reminded everyone after the game—and it was his lay-up with 27 seconds left that deadlocked the score at 81, forcing five more minutes in this edition of the greatest rivalry in college sports.
“It’s tough for this game to always live up to all the hype,” Krzyzewski said, “But I think tonight’s game exceeded it.”
“Both teams played their hearts out. I don’t see how both teams could play any harder than they did.”