North Carolina did nearly everything right for 35 minutes.
The Tar Heels were aggressive defensively, shared the ball, rebounded and built a 16-point lead. Then came the game's final 5 minutes.
Duke tried to erase all of the good things UNC did but couldn’t quite do it. A defensive stop here and a free throw there gave the Tar Heels a 74-69 win over the Blue Devils and a spot in the ACC tournament championship game.
The win, UNC’s first over Duke in the ACC tournament since 1998, means it will be the sixth-seeded Tar Heels (25-9) against top-seeded Virginia (30-2) for the ACC title on Saturday night in Brooklyn.
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“I thought for a big stretch in the second half we were really, really good,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “Then all of the sudden at the 5-minute mark … ”
That’s when Duke (26-7), with 20 points from freshman guard Gary Trent and 19 from freshman forward Marvin Bagley, went on a 13-0 run.
The Blue Devils had the ball twice in the final 20 seconds, down 72-69, and with a chance to tie the game. With 17.8 seconds left, UNC guard Kenny Williams drew a charge on Duke senior Grayson Allen.
After a turnover by UNC senior Theo Pinson with 11.8 seconds left, Duke got one more chance but Allen’s rushed 3-point attempt didn’t hit the rim.
Pinson grabbed the rebound with 4.4 seconds left and then put the game away with free throws.
“I’m proud of my guys,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I thought in the last 6 minutes they showed an incredible will to win against a very, very good basketball team. We had a chance. We had a chance, but we've got to do that a little bit earlier.”
For UNC, it was a little payback for a loss to Duke last week and a loss to the Blue Devils last year in Brooklyn in the same round.
Duke beat the Heels in the semifinals en route to winning four games in four days and taking home the championship. Now it’s UNC’s turn — but only after that wild finish.
UNC built up a 72-56 lead at the 5:33 mark by sharing the ball and suffocating Duke on the defensive end. The Tar Heels, playing against a 2-3 zone for the fourth time in six games, had 24 assists on 28 made baskets.
Pinson led the Tar Heels with seven assists while junior forward Luke Maye bounced back from his season-low in points with a team-high 17.
UNC held Duke to 26.1 percent (6-of-23) at the 3-point line and forced 18 turnovers, the most by an ACC opponent this season.
“We're not going to win a game against a team that caliber if we turn it over 18 times,” Krzyzewski said.
UNC’s 18 offensive rebounds and balanced scoring — five different players finished in double-figures including freshman forward Garrison Brooks — were too much for Duke to overcome.
For much of the game, Duke was too passive in its zone and UNC was able to get too many clean looks in the middle of it. Brooks and Maye, in particular, kept finding the soft spots.
Meanwhile, UNC was hounding every pass and making life in general miserable for Duke when the Devils had the ball. The game had a little bit of everything, with former Duke stars Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Jahlil Okafor and J.J. Redick in attendance. There was even a Grayson Allen incident in the first half.
The Duke senior, prone to extracurricular contact and tripping incidents, picked up a flagrant 1 foul for a collision with Brooks. That looked like it would be the only drama after UNC surged into a double-digit lead early in the second half. But Duke fought back and had a chance until Allen’s final miss.
Williams wasn’t quite sure what to make of the final 5 minutes but the end result was all that mattered.
“The bottom line is we made enough plays and we're still playing,” Williams said. “So I'm happy.”