The double teams came from all angles and sides, and they came whenever Jahlil Okafor, the Duke freshman center, maneuvered with the ball closer to the basket.
That is, the double teams came until the Tar Heels ran out of bodies, and answers, for Okafor, who was at his best late in the Blue Devils' 92-90 overtime victory against UNC on Wednesday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Okafor finished with 12 points – one of his more modest scoring performances of the season – but four of those came in overtime, and all of those points came after Brice Johnson, UNC's junior forward, fouled out.
Johnson hadn't been the primary defender assigned to Okafor – that was Kennedy Meeks – but he was instrumental in UNC's double teams against Okafor, who was limited after sustaining a foot injury with 3 ½ minutes to play in the first half.
UNC prefers to defend opposing teams straight up, but that's how much respect the Tar Heels paid Okafor, a favorite for ACC Player of the Year honors.
“He's very gifted,” UNC coach Roy Williams said Tuesday. “He's got great feet, great hands. Turns to either shoulder. He's got touch when he turns. … You have to make some allowances for him.”
UNC did, and the job it did defensively on Okafor was one of the primary reasons the Tar Heels led by 10 with less than four minutes to play before Duke rallied and sent the game in overtime. Okafor entered Wednesday night averaging 18.2 points and 9.3 rebounds, but he scored eight points in regulation, which would have been his fewest of the season if the game ended then.
Williams and his players spoke on Tuesday of how it would take a complete team effort to limit Okafor. Meeks, who started for the first time in three games, was most guarded Okafor. Johnson, the junior forward, helped Meeks early – and late – but the Tar Heels double teamed Okafor throughout, sometimes as soon as he touched the ball in the post.
The strategy didn't always work. At times, especially early, Okafor passed out of double teams, and those passes led to 3-point opportunities for Quinn Cook, whose early 3-point shooting helped Duke build a 12-point lead with about 12 ½ minutes to play before halftime.
And once, Okafor dribbled out of a double team, around the defense and down the lane. He finished with a layup that gave the Blue Devils a 25-16 lead.
Overall, until overtime, it was a frustrating night for Okafor, who briefly left the game with 3 ½ minutes to play in the first half after falling in front of the UNC bench. Okafor on that play appeared to endure a foot or ankle injury. He walked slowly off the court, with help, and briefly went to the locker room.
When he returned with 45 seconds to play before halftime, loud cheers awaited him. He played through a quiet second half before emerging when Duke need him most.