Duke might wake up Thursday morning still trying to figure out how it won this one. North Carolina will spend the rest of the season, and perhaps longer, trying to figure out how it lost.
Even after losing Matt Jones to what looked to be a nasty left ankle injury, despite being unable to stop North Carolina’s Brice Johnson, despite trailing for almost the second half with almost no one left on the bench, Duke somehow conjured up an improbable win Wednesday – its fourth straight against North Carolina.
Duke’s 74-73 win was a defiant performance in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity that left the Smith Center in silence. And not the shocked kind of silence that filled the void left by Austin Rivers’ game-winner in 2012. This was different – angry, restive, exasperated. Everyone could see it coming from so far away.
The Tar Heels time and time again failed to put Duke away and the Blue Devils kept hacking and clawing with the kind of bitter, dogged resolve that North Carolina very clearly lacks despite their assemblage of talent.
Unlike 2012, when the Blue Devils came back from 10 points down in a late flurry capped by Rivers’ shot, it took almost the entire second half for Duke to play its way back into the game, grinding away while the Tar Heels wilted.
“This game was a lot better,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “What I’m saying, we were really lucky to win that game (in 2012). I don’t think we were lucky to win this game. I think we fought hard and earned it.”
This should have been an easy win for North Carolina. Johnson was nigh-unstoppable with 29 points and 19 rebounds while the Blue Devils were down to five players and little-used Chase Jeter after Jones came down awkwardly on his left ankle late in the first half and never returned.
But the Tar Heels never closed out the Blue Devils, going 1-for-13 from 3-point range and failing to press their advantage inside with Johnson against foul-saddled Marshall Plumlee. Duke spent most of the second half sending Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram to the rim with impunity until the Blue Devils finally erased North Carolina’s lead with 2:39 to play.
North Carolina had a chance to win with the ball and 20 seconds to go, but Joel Berry’s drive went nowhere, and despite the chaos on the court, Roy Williams decided not to call timeout to set up a final play – inaction for which he would afterward apologize to his team.
“I had guys who tried awful hard,” Williams said, repeatedly rubbing his eyes, as if he couldn’t believe what he had just seen. “We didn’t quite get there.”
Duke’s win left both teams wondering about the long-term implications – Duke worrying about its prospects without Jones, North Carolina left lamenting not only a win that got away but how weak it looked in failing to close out and secure a game it dominated for much of the evening.
Duke has won without Amile Jefferson and won without Krzyzewski and now without Jones, but if he’s out for any length of time – and with only a few weeks left before the NCAA tournament, that bar is set pretty low – the equation changes drastically for the Blue Devils, who are down to four scholarship perimeter players.
“That’s it, man,” Krzyzewski said. “I’ve been saying that since Amile.”
The Tar Heels should have an equal level of concern that they were never able to leverage Johnson’s dominance or their superior depth to put the Blue Devils away. Their loss throws the ACC race into chaos, with Miami coming to Chapel Hill on Saturday to face a North Carolina team that now looks all too vulnerable.