If only Duke had been as nimble and aggressive on defense as Mike Krzyzewski was at the postgame podium, taking a charge for Grayson Allen, the Blue Devils might be playing for the ACC title Saturday instead of North Carolina.
Krzyzewski wouldn't let Allen answer a question about whether his judged-to-be-flagrant hip check of Garrison Brooks was intentional, at which point yet another Allen controversy went from ludicrous to plaid.
And yet held up against the searing light of this most tense and heated of this season's three meetings of the rivals, the incident was far less important or consequential than the way Brooks played for North Carolina. Or the way Duke shot the ball. Or the way North Carolina failed to score for five and a half minutes at the end as it fumbled away all but three points of a 16-point lead. Or the contested, off-balance 3-pointer Allen took with Duke's last shot in a 74-69 North Carolina win.
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This game had everything, from a building-record crowd to a staredown between Joel Berry and Gary Trent Jr. to Theo Pinson doing everything right until he fumbled the ball out of bounds at the worst possible moment giving Duke a chance to tie.
And it had Allen using his posterior to knock Brooks to the floor, putting Allen back in the spotlight at the worst possible moment for Duke, heading into the NCAA tournament.
Duke's coaches were up protesting the lack of a foul call on an Allen drive as North Carolina came back up the court. As Brooks ran past Allen, Allen stuck out his butt and sent Brooks sprawling, a hip check that would make Sean Hill proud.
If it was any other player, it might not have been followed by a review at the monitor, at which point it was adjudged to be a flagrant 1 foul – two shots and the ball. But Allen isn't any other player, and he carries his reputation and his track record with him like luggage. His actions are, and will be, seen through a different lens because his past behavior calls for it.
“They got a fast break and I bumped him and fouled him,” Allen said, when asked to describe the play from his perspective.
Brooks was less sanguine: “I'm not going to say it was OK.”
When Allen was asked, as a follow-up, to respond to Brooks, Krzyzewski jumped in before Allen could answer.
“You know, any foul in a game is not – you don't want any foul in a game,” Krzyzewski said. “So that was another foul in a game. Do you think that was the only time someone was hipped in the game? If you look in the low post, that's going on all the time, so it happened at half-court. They got it. It's done. And that didn't win or lose the game.”
Allen – a senior captain who, needless to say, has been through this before – doesn't need that kind of baby-sitting. He can defend himself (and has). Instead, Krzyzewski left the impression Allen was lawyering up when the real significance of the incident was better represented by Allen and Joel Berry, old friends and teammates who became four-year rivals, smiling and laughing together at midcourt during Brooks' free throws while their teammates stood apart like Sharks and Jets.
“They're always going to get on him about that,” Berry said. “Any little trip he does, if he puts a finger on somebody, they're going to react. … I just told him that, 'You've just got to watch yourself because anything you do like that, you know they're going to get on you about (it).”
Berry-Allen cameraderie aside, this was the most heated and intense of the three meetings, with Berry and Trent both coming down with a rebound and ending up glaring at each other from inches apart like a pair of boxers trying to boost sluggish pay-per-view sales at the weigh-in.
For 35 minutes, Duke wasn't in the game mentally, at least not to the degree North Carolina was. Brooks was an unexpected offensive factor during a first half the Tar Heels dominated, and North Carolina slashed through Duke's zone to lead by as many as 16 points late.
At which point Duke suddenly awoke, North Carolina turned fumble-fingered and the Blue Devils scored the next 13 points. Only a few offensive rebounds that extended possessions – one lasted 53 seconds – saved the Tar Heels. After Pinson's ghastly turnover, Allen had a left-wing 3 against Luke Maye, but Maye didn't bite on his shot-fake and Allen had to lean to his left and throw up an unanswered prayer.
It was North Carolina's first ACC tournament win over Duke since 1998, ending a six-game losing streak. Regardless of what happens Saturday against Virginia – “Bring our brain tomorrow,” the whiteboard in the North Carolina locker room implored – Friday's win may be enough to push the Tar Heels' NCAA seeding past the Blue Devils'. And that may send the Tar Heels to Charlotte next week, especially if North Carolina claims the title.
It might not. There's no question North Carolina has the edge in experience thanks to Berry and Pinson but Duke has the edge in raw talent. It also has some extra baggage, since Allen's going to spend the rest of his Duke career, however many more games that may be, facing the questions he wasn't allowed to answer Friday night.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock