North Carolina had lost three of its first four ACC games that were decided by four points or less.
The Tar Heels were able to pull out a close conference game on Thursday night. Four plays that led to UNC’s 82-78 win over Duke:
1) Theo Pinson’s block, save
Duke was in control of the game in the first half. The Blue Devils led 40-28 before a three-point play by UNC guard Joel Berry at 6:14 cut the margin to single digits.
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Duke was able to pound UNC inside and then free up shots on the perimeter. Thirty of Duke’s 49 first-half points came in the paint and all four of their made 3-pointers were uncontested (thanks to UNC helping off shooters and trying to protect the paint).
Duke freshman Trevon Duval was alone at the 3-point line after guard Alex O’Connell was able to drive past Cam Johnson into the paint. Pinson, who was matched up with Duval, was in the paint when Duval caught the ball in front of UNC’s bench.
Pinson somehow was able to recover and close out on Duval’s shot. Pinson blocked the shot and then beat Duval to the loose ball and saved it to forward Luke Maye, who found Johnson on an outlet pass for a layup.
From that point, UNC was able to cut into Duke’s advantage and go into the half down four (49-45) instead of more.
“I thought we should have been up (at the half) by about eight,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
2) A little help from Duke
As good as UNC played in the second half, sometimes the other team has to help. After Johnson’s putback gave UNC a 53-51 lead, Krzyzewski called a timeout to try to stem Carolina’s early surge.
Out of the timeout, Duke ran a set that had both Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter in the high post. Bagley, the ACC’s leading scorer, set two screens but didn’t touch the ball on the play.
Duval rubbed off Carter instead and drove to the basket for a contested layup.
Bagley doesn’t have to take every shot for Duke but you gotta figure if Krzyzewski called the timeout and set up a play, it wasn’t for Duval to get a contested look.
During UNC’s 16-2 run to open the second half (and really to win the game), Bagley didn’t attempt a shot. Bagley, who finished with 15 points, had only two free throws while mostly being guarded by a smaller forward (Pinson, who is six inches shorter). He has to be more assertive.
UNC doesn’t control that but it was happy to have Bagley be a passenger while UNC’s best player (Berry) drove the bus for his team.
3) Pinson’s tip
After Duval’s miss, Pinson knifed between Bagley and Carter and tipped the rebound to Berry. Berry pushed the ball in transition and then was able to find Kenny Williams deep behind the 3-point line.
Williams, who tied his career high with 20 points, made one of his six 3-pointers and one of 11 for UNC – which is the most the Tar Heels have had in any home game with Duke.
Williams’ 3 gave UNC a 56-51 lead at 17:04.
Pinson, who finished with seven rebounds, threw some shade at Duke’s rebounding skills after the game.
“We knew they weren’t very good at boxing out, so we just wanted to keep attacking the boards and we did everything we could,” Pinson said.
4) The dagger from Johnson
After UNC’s home loss to N.C. State on Jan. 27, Roy Williams lamented that his team wasn’t making the kind of big shots it needed to make and the ones his teams usually do make.
Johnson had an open look late against the Wolfpack that he didn’t convert. He was in a similar position on Thursday and this time he didn’t miss.
Up 74-71, after Duke’s Gary Trent missed an open 3, UNC had the ball and Kenny Williams drove on O’Connell. Carter left Johnson to help on Williams, who kicked the ball out to Johnson on the left wing.
Johnson buried the 3, one of four for him, to give UNC a 77-71 lead and effectively put the game away with 3:09 left.
5) Johnson with (another) offensive rebound
After Bagley missed a midrange leaner, UNC got the ball back with 2:13 left and a 79-71 lead.
Berry missed a 3-pointer with 1:50 left but Johnson was able to tip the rebound out to Williams on the perimeter. It was one of six offensive rebounds Johnson had in the game and one of 15 UNC had in the second half.
“That was an incredible stat for them,” Krzyzewski said.
UNC did not score on the possession, Pinson missed a dunk, but Duke didn’t get the ball back until there was 1:24 left. The possession took 49 seconds off the clock, which at that point in the game, was just as valuable as a made basket.
Johnson finished with his second double-double of the season with 18 points and 13 rebounds. His first was against Boston College (14 and 11). The BC and Duke wins are arguably UNC’s two best performances of the season.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio