North Carolina knew what awaited if it had lost another game like this – if it had allowed another double-digit lead against Duke to melt away and turn into a wrenching defeat, like it did the first time these teams played in mid-February.
And here the Tar Heels were again on Saturday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, an 11-point lead down to nothing, the game tied, the energy here electric, the momentum favoring the Blue Devils, the thoughts turning to the past and all those games UNC has allowed to slip away.
But now, UNC guard Marcus Paige said, “We kept our composure.”
He was speaking inside the small visiting locker room in the basement of Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the Tar Heels were still loudly celebrating their 76-72 victory against Duke. It was significant for a couple of reasons.
For one, it provided UNC with a bit of vengeance and redemption after its meltdown of a defeat against the Blue Devils on Feb. 17. A short phrase written on the white board inside the locker room, meanwhile, reflected the more significant part of the victory.
Written on the board was the numeral “1,” followed by the word “champions.” As in: ACC regular-season champions. UNC won the league outright for the first time since 2012, and it did because the Tar Heels were tough enough in the kind of moments in which they’d failed other times this season.
“We were up eight at half,” Paige said. “We came in and talked about how we weren’t going to have another game where we come back in and talk about ‘what if,’ or ‘we should have finished.’
“And then they come out and tie the game.”
That happened with about 12 minutes remaining, when Duke’s Grayson Allen made a 3-pointer that tied the score at 49. The floor shook and the noise was deafening and UNC coach Roy Williams called a timeout in hopes of calming his team.
“I told our guys in the timeout that they had done that in the first half and we responded,” Williams said later. “So let’s respond right now.”
UNC did, eventually stretching its lead back out to nine points with 3 1/2 minutes remaining. And yet Duke continued to fight, and cut its deficit to three points with 18 seconds left and then to two points with nine seconds to play and then to two points, again, with 1.5 seconds left.
All of those times the Tar Heels were faced with the precarious circumstance of having to make free throws or risk losing their lead on Duke’s next possession. And all of those times, they responded – first with a pair of free throws from Joel Berry, the sophomore guard, and then with four from Paige in the final nine seconds.
It had not been a good shooting night for Paige. At least not from the field, where he missed seven of his 10 attempts. And yet with Duke needing to foul to keep hope alive Paige wanted the ball in his hands with more than 9,000 people screaming at him to miss.
Williams wasn’t sure what to think when Paige stepped to the line in the final moments. Williams, after all, has seen Paige labor this season in a way he never has.
And yet “if I had to pick anybody in the country to step to the line in that situation, I wanted Marcus Paige over anybody else,” Williams said.
Paige, meanwhile, said he was “happy” to have those final chances at the line.
“Because I wanted the ball in my hands,” he said. “I can miss, I really can miss a million shots in a row, and I still feel like I’m going to make the next one. So to have the ball going to the line, I knew I was going to put the game on ice.”
Which is what he did. Paige finished with 11 points while forwards Brice Johnson (18 points, 21 rebounds) and Kennedy Meeks (12 points, 14 rebounds) finished with double-doubles. They were the catalysts on the inside for UNC, which dominated in all aspects on the interior.
UNC outscored Duke 42-20 in the paint, out-rebounded Duke 64-29 and nearly finished with as many offensive rebounds (27) as Duke had overall. At one point in the second half the Tar Heels rebounded six missed shots on one possession.
“I was like, ‘What is going on?’ ” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘Can I please make a shot?’ ”
The Tar Heels didn’t score on that possession, but it was indicative of their relentless quest to secure missed shots. UNC needed all those rebounds, and all those late free throws, to leave Cameron Indoor Stadium with a victory.
A year ago the Tar Heels left the same building wondering how they’d lost a 10-point lead in the final minutes of regulation. It was one of those defeats that stuck in the players’ minds, as did the one in Chapel Hill a few weeks ago.
“We didn’t close out last year,” Berry said. “We had them in here. But we knew we were going to get them this year.”
If UNC hadn’t – if it had lost this one – players knew what would await them. More questions of their character and their heart.
“They would have probably questioned our toughness again,” Johnson said. “That’s the only thing they ever question when we lose a game like that. So this just shows that we are a tough team and we can grind it out.”
Instead of leaving questions, the Tar Heels provided a statement. A couple, actually. They left one of them on the white board inside the visitor’s locker room.