Losing critical 50-50 balls this season has cost Duke a few moments.
The Blue Devils couldn’t secure an offensive rebound that resulted in Virginia Tech’s early 8-0 lead, the Hokies never relenting in their win over Duke in the ACC opener on Dec. 31.
Trailing by one in the final 2 minutes and 37 seconds against N.C. State on Jan. 23, the Wolfpack outrebounded Duke a slight 6-4 margin in that time frame but came up with the bigger boards.
Thursday, When Jayson Tatum missed from downtown late against No. 8 UNC, the ball wound up near the top of the 3-point line. Even coach Mike Krzyzewski said he thought UNC might get it.
With the game on the line, senior guard Matt Jones dove for it, tussling with Joel Berry II on the floor to secure it.
In a storied rivalry game at Cameron Indoor Stadium with 17 lead changes, North Carolina trailed by four when the Jones rebound sustained the possession. Freshman Frank Jackson wound up at the free-throw line to stretch Duke’s lead before the No. 18 Blue Devils held on for an 86-78 victory.
“I’ve been here long enough,” Jones said. “That play could either win us the game or lose us the game. For me, I just had to get the ball. Even if I fouled or anything like that, it’s kind of just like I need to get it, and luckily it bounced our way.”
Duke (19-5, 7-4 ACC) edged one of the best rebounding teams on the glass with a 31-30 advantage. UNC (21-5, 9-3) entered the matchup leading the country in rebounding and was second in offensive rebounds a game with 16.4; the Tar Heels came away with seven on Thursday.
“The two things they do the best are transition and offensive rebound,” Krzyzewski said. “Tough to take away both. They just motor that thing down the court. We did a decent job with it, but on the rebounding, we really fought hard. That was a key obviously to the game.”
Tatum led the game with nine boards – eight from the defensive glass – to go with 19 points. UNC forwards Kennedy Meeks and Justin Jackson finished with five rebounds apiece.
Tatum secured a key defensive rebound with 19 seconds left, when Duke led by four. He next drew contact and knocked down two free throws for an 83-77 Duke lead.
The 6-9 wing didn’t score until after the break. Tatum and Frank Jackson were major contributors to complement Grayson Allen, who led the Blue Devils with 25 points on 7-of-12 shooting from 3-point range before fouling out with a minute left, and Luke Kennard, who added 20 as one of four Duke players in double figures. Frank Jackson had 11.
The freshman pair played with poise late with two veterans in foul trouble. Amile Jefferson, who played 30 minutes, played with four fouls down the stretch. His only points came from the free-throw line with 2 seconds left.
“If you’re a player, you have a chance to be tight in a game like this. It’s a big-time game,” Krzyzewski said. “A freshman being in a game like this, you can get knocked back.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan