Duke has been an enigma for long stretches this season, a team whose considerable talent has been tested by injuries and inconsistency and, at times, by Grayson Allen’s controversial antics. After all of it, though, the Blue Devils are one victory away from an ACC championship after their 93-83 victory against North Carolina on Friday night in the ACC tournament semifinals.
The Blue Devils (26-8), the tournament’s No. 5 seed, trailed by 13 points late in the first half, and by 13, again, with a little less than 14 minutes remaining. At the time the Tar Heels led 61-48 after Kennedy Meeks, the senior forward, made a layup, which gave him 19 points. UNC (27-7), then the tournament’s top seed, seemed as though it might be on its way, thanks in large part to Meeks and its ability to score inside.
But even then, the Tar Heels found themselves in perilous position, what with Joel Berry, the junior point guard, on the bench with four fouls. Duke increased its defensive intensity, the Tar Heels withered offensively, and after that Meeks layup Duke outscored UNC 29-11 during the next 11½ minutes and led 77-72 with 3½ minutes remaining.
From there, the Blue Devils’ lead only became wider. It grew as large as 11 during the final two minutes, with many in a sold-out crowd at the Barclays Center, which is hosting the tournament for the first time, standing and chanting, “Let’s go Duke.” When the Blue Devils were at their best, it often sounded like a Duke home game.
With the victory, Duke advanced to the ACC tournament championship game for the first time since 2014, when it lost against Virginia. The Blue Devils haven’t won the tournament since 2011, when they defeated UNC in the championship game.
Before Friday, that was also the most recent time these teams played in the ACC tournament. Duke, led on Friday by Jayson Tatum’s 24 points and Luke Kennard’s 20, has now defeated the Tar Heels in their past six tournament meetings. UNC hasn’t beaten Duke in the ACC tournament since 1998.
It appeared like that stretch of tournament futility against Duke would end for UNC. The Tar Heels controlled most of the first half, and exerted their will on the inside, where they outscored Duke 32-10 in the paint during the first 20 minutes. Those 32 points on the interior were only two fewer than UNC scored in the entirety of its defeat at Duke on Feb. 9.
Meeks, though, didn’t score after that layup with about 14 minutes to play. And with Berry sitting out for about 10 minutes after committing his fourth foul, the Tar Heels’ offense lacked its usual rhythm while the Blue Devils increased their defensive pressure.
UNC, led by Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, both of whom finished with 19 points, shot only 28.6 percent during the second half, after shooting 55.6 percent in the first half. The game completely reversed course after halftime, and Duke’s victory denied UNC its third consecutive appearance in the ACC championship game.