There was still time on the clock, still free throws to take, but Matt Jones and Luke Kennard stood at center court and milked the adulation. They had been waiting for this kind of moment all season, even more so after the shocking home loss to N.C. State.
Thursday, the moment finally arrived. And at the best possible moment for Duke, at home, against North Carolina.
This was what was expected from the Devils all along, weathering North Carolina’s second-half run before pulling away for an 86-78 win. Finally healthy, they finally clicked. This was their fourth straight win, and none of them carried this much weight.
“We know we got a good thing going now,” Duke freshman Harry Giles said. “We’re clicking.”
This was one of those Duke-Carolina games where you wanted to say, forget the rest of the schedule, let’s come back tomorrow and do this again. Just keep playing. Bring Red Panda, the unicycling bowl-flipper, back again for halftime. Make it a residence, night after night, like Cher in Vegas.
It isn’t always like that. Over the past decade, more than a few of these games have been snoozers. But it’s the mere chance that everything will click, and the stars will align, no matter the relative quality of the teams – and there were no questions about that Thursday – that creates the anticipation, locally and nationally.
When it clicks, whether in Durham or Chapel Hill, there’s nothing better.
Thursday was one of those nights: 17 lead changes, 25 points from Grayson Allen, 21 from Justin Jackson and a dunk by Jayson Tatum that will live on long after the circumstances of this win are forgotten.
“I’m so grateful we won, because we beat a really good team, and we played very well.” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “God bless us. That was a heck of a win.”
It felt like it was going to come down to which team had the ball last, right until Joel Berry missed the front end of a one-and-one with 4:40 to play and North Carolina down one. It was one of far too many missed free throws for the Tar Heels, who were 8-for-15 from the line in the second half. Kennard went down and found Tatum for 3 in the corner, and when Berry took – and missed an NBA-distance 3-pointer – the Tar Heels lost touch with the Blue Devils once and for all.
This game provided its fair share of highlights for future use, most notably Tatum’s second-half dunk, hammered upon the unfortunate personage of Kennedy Meeks, who only moments earlier had missed an uncontested two-handed dunk at the other end. It was not the best sequence of his career.
The signature moment of Tatum’s Duke career, to that point, had been dribbling the ball off his foot with a chance to beat N.C. State, a loss that baffled then and continues to baffle. This dunk neatly pushed that aside, while leaving an indelible mark on Tatum’s one North Carolina game in Cameron. Tatum, scoreless in the first half, had 19 in the second half – two of them on the dunk, three on the game’s most crucial basket.
“Coach was challenging me to attack the rim strong,” Tatum said of his dunk. “I got my opportunity and I fed off that and my team did and we just kept on going.”
Even before tip, the game was enveloped in drama when Isaiah Hicks was a surprising scratch, having strained a hamstring in practice Wednesday, landing awkwardly on Berry after dunking on a fast-break drill. Hicks went through warmups with the Tar Heels, but never left the bench.
That should have provided Duke a critical advantage. Hicks, with his mobility, has shown in the past he’s capable of guarding a perimeter player, while creating a matchup problem at the offensive end. But Luke Maye deputized well in his first career start, and Hicks’ absence may have encouraged Roy Williams to go small more often than he would have otherwise. And that became an unexpected benefit during a mid-second-half run that erased an eight-point Duke lead and put the Tar Heels back in the lead for what turned out to be the last time.
“They’re a tough matchup, they make seven out of 12 3s in the second half; we didn’t make the plays we needed to,” Williams said. “You’ve got to give them credit.”
When things started to go Duke’s way, the Blue Devils just had too much firepower. The Tar Heels couldn’t keep up with Kennard, and when Allen started firing, the baskets came easy for Duke.
The Blue Devils held even with the Tar Heels in rebounding, a disadvantage Krzyzewski on Wednesday said made him break out in a rash. The Blue Devils even got away with two empty Tatum possessions, the same Kryptonite that got them late in the N.C. State game.
Not this time. Whatever got in Duke’s way earlier this season, whatever kept the Blue Devils from making the most of their talent, it wasn’t there Thursday. Given the chance, Duke put the game away late, finally looking like the team it was supposed to be all along.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock