Grayson Allen has been forced to simply watch his Duke teammates play a couple of times this season.
The last time, six weeks ago when he was serving a suspension at Virginia Tech, wasn’t fun at all.
“Virginia Tech just killed us,” Allen said.
On Thursday night, even as he scored 25 points to lead No. 18 Duke against No. 8 North Carolina, fouls meant Allen had to watch for two important stretches late in the second half.
What he saw this time allowed an easy smile to cascade across his face.
That’s because Luke Kennard scored 20 points, Jayson Tatum had all 19 of his points in the second half and freshman reserve guard Frank Jackson scored 11 as Duke pulled away in the final five minutes to beat the Tar Heels 86-78 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“I didn’t think guys were nervous out there,” Allen said. “I thought they were themselves.”
Suddenly, after a sometimes tumultuous season, the Blue Devils felt comfortable, and they looked it when the game was on the line.
Allen made seven 3-pointers, including a key one with 1:16 left that put Duke up 80-75. But he fouled out 14 seconds later, and the Blue Devils (19-5, 7-4 ACC) needed more heroes.
UNC (21-5, 9-3) trailed 80-77 when Tatum missed a 3-pointer. But Duke’s Matt Jones dived on the floor to grab the bouncing ball for a key offensive rebound that UNC coach Roy Williams called the play of the game.
Freshman Frank Jackson was fouled and hit a free throw with 26.9 seconds left giving Duke an 81-77 lead. Tatum added two more free throws with 16 seconds as Duke protected the lead, won its fourth game in a row and tightened up the ACC race.
“It’s really cool to see a couple of the young guys step up tonight,” Kennard said. “It was really huge. It was huge. We all grew up tonight. We were all together and we were all tough.”
In another epic chapter of the rivalry, the game featured 17 lead changes and nine ties. UNC trailed by eight points early in the second half only to fight back and build a 64-59 lead with 11:16 to play.
“When we lost the lead, when they took the lead, the game could have been over,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Instead, our team got really tough and we were able to pull it out.”
UNC played without 6-9 senior forward Isaiah Hicks, who injured a hamstring in practice on Wednesday. His absence helped Duke win the rebounding edge, 32-31, against a UNC team that is one of the nation’s top rebounding teams.
The Tar Heels hurt themselves at the free-throw line, making just 10 of 18. That included a subpar 8-of-15 in the second half.
“And one of those was a one-and-one so it’s really 8-of-16,” Williams lamented.
Justin Jackson scored 21 points to lead UNC, but he made just one field goal over the game’s final 12 minutes. Joel Berry added 18 points for the Tar Heels.
Meanwhile, Duke had too many answers – especially from players in addition to Allen.
Duke survived a four-minute stretch of the second half with Allen on the bench in foul trouble. He picked up his fourth foul with 8:35 remaining and left the game.
The score was tied at 66 at the time.
When he returned with 4:49 to play, Duke had built a one-point lead because Kennard had scored a couple of key baskets in the interim. Kennard’s bank shot with 6:30 left gave Duke a 72-71 lead.
Kennard drove the lane looking to add to Duke’s lead but instead of shooting, he passed the ball back out to Tatum for a wide-open 3-pointer with 4:22 left that gave Duke a 75-71 lead.
“We wanted to stay calm,” Kennard said. “We wanted to stay together. Grayson is a big part of our team. When he is out, it’s a big loss for us. But we stayed calm and were able to control the game a little bit, able to slow it down, get a couple of stops, get some good shots.”
During Allen’s absence, UNC hurt itself by missing three free throws, including Berry’s miss on the front end of a one-and-bonus with 4:49 left and Duke leading 72-71.
When Allen returned, his two-handed slam dunk after getting loose in a half-court set with 3:22 left gave Duke a 77-71 lead.
Jackson ended UNC’s stretch of 4:35 without a field goal by drilling a 3-pointer with 2:57 left to cut Duke’s lead in half.
Allen missed 3-pointer and after Duke grabbed the rebound, Berry stole the ball from Allen to start a fast break. Berry drew a foul but hit only one of two free throws leaving Duke up 77-75 with 2:20 left.
With 1:16 left, just 14 seconds before he would foul out, Allen sank a 3-pointer to put Duke up 80-75.
He watched the final 1:02 from the bench and saw his teammates pull out a tough win, which was far different from Duke’s loss Virginia Tech while serving a one-game suspension for tripping an opposing player.
“I thought our toughness tonight was incredible, especially in the second half,” Allen said. “We played with confidence, and it wasn’t individual confidence. It was collective. We played together, and it was great.”