In the exultation and jubilation in Duke’s locker room after Wednesday’s overtime victory over North Carolina, Duke’s players couldn’t help but look back to a different win a month ago.
When Duke came back from an 10-point deficit in the second half to win at St. John’s, after failing to do so in losses to N.C. State and Miami, something clicked. Since then, the Blue Devils have erased double-digit deficits three more times – twice on the road, once at home – in wins over Virginia, Syracuse and now North Carolina in Wednesday’s 92-90 overtime win.
“We’ve been there before,” Duke guard Quinn Cook said. “Coach kept telling us, ‘Keep believing. It’s going to be an amazing win.’ ”
While Duke kept thinking about that January win, North Carolina may end up taking just as much from this February loss.
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For the Tar Heels, what should resonate about Wednesday’s extra-time epic is not the inability to close out the Blue Devils in the closing stages of regulation – Tyus Jones has dismantled better teams than North Carolina in the final moments, when Duke goes small – nor that the Tar Heels have now lost four of their past five, but that their ceiling is higher than they have shown to this point.
Just as St. John’s taught Duke it could come back from any deficit, this game should teach North Carolina it has much more to offer in a season when the Tar Heels have been, for the most part, something less than the sum of their parts.
“That’s the way we’re supposed to play,” North Carolina guard Marcus Paige said. “You see what can happen when we play that way.”
On a night when Cook took Paige almost entirely out of the game – Paige was 2 for 11 from the floor, limited to five points – the Tar Heels got massive performances from Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson as well as less heralded, less expected contributions from bench players like Nate Britt, Isaiah Hicks, Joel James and Joel Berry.
That kept the Tar Heels competitive even with Paige stymied and tentative freshman Justin Jackson still not having much of an impact.
“It’s getting toward the end of the season,” said North Carolina’s J.P. Tokoto, who made an indelible mark on the rivalry with three high-flying dunks. “The ACC tournament’s coming up, and NCAAs after that. The season has flown by fast and some guys may not realize it, but it’s coming to an end. We just have to keep chugging along. Like I said, we’ll be just fine.”
Perhaps most significant, the Tar Heels showed moxie in recovering from an opening four minutes that could hardly have gone any worse – North Carolina coach Roy Williams called his team “brain dead” – leaving the Tar Heels at risk of getting blown out of the gym, only to come back from 10 points down to take a 10-point lead of their own.
So much of what’s been missing from the Tar Heels this season – toughness, the fabled “sense of urgency” – was there Wednesday night.
“For the most part, I really, really enjoyed the toughness and the poise of my team,” Williams said. “Yes, we missed some free throws. We missed a wide-open shot in the corner there that was a 3 that would have helped, but that’s college basketball. It’s 18, 19, 20, 21-year-old kids.”
On talent alone, North Carolina is better than 18-8, 8-5 in the ACC. Wednesday proved that, going to the final possession in a hostile environment against what is clearly, at this moment, one of the best teams in the country. It may also have shown the Tar Heels just what they’re capable of doing against teams that aren’t Duke, just as the Blue Devils figured out what they’re capable of a month ago.