Luke DeCock

In what may have been his last shot, Marvin Bagley leaves his mark on the rivalry

Duke's  Marvin Bagley III (35) scores with a second half dunk. Bagley led the Blue Devils with 21 points. Duke defeated UNC 74-64 at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham, N.C. Saturday, March 3, 2018.
Duke's Marvin Bagley III (35) scores with a second half dunk. Bagley led the Blue Devils with 21 points. Duke defeated UNC 74-64 at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham, N.C. Saturday, March 3, 2018.

The crowd chanted Grayson Allen's name and applauded his parents and the students handed down a poster that he took with him and he stood at center court and savored his final moments at Cameron.

His Duke teammates stood behind him, Marvin Bagley III among them, a towel over his shoulder, savoring their final moments at Cameron in a less visible way, without the fanfare Allen earned over four years but with similar wistfulness.

Bagley, at least, will exit imminently having left an indelible mark on the Duke-North Carolina rivalry in what might have been his last shot. This will be his chapter. This was The Bagley Game. After scoring a tame 15 points in Duke's loss in Chapel Hill, Bagley took over in the second half Saturday, scoring 18 of his game-high 21 in the second half as Duke came back from 13 points down for a 74-64 win.

“It just comes out, man,” Bagley said. “You just get in that zone where you feel like nobody can stop you.”

Five days after a broadcaster known for Twitter spats and milking one game's defense of Michael Jordan for three-plus decades blasted Bagley for being selfish and said Duke was better off without the star freshman, Bagley demonstrated how essential his raw talent really is, how explosive he can be, and why his preternatural ability may be the wild card for Duke over the next month.

This may not be his team. But this was his night, even if Allen collected the accolades at the end. Duke trailed by 10 at the half and 13 after that, only for Bagley to become an unstoppable force under the basket, dunking not only his own misses but his own blocked shots, bouncing back off the floor with such elasticity he appeared to be levitating.

In one seven-minute stretch, Bagley scored 12 points and grabbed seven rebounds as an 11-point deficit turned into a two-point Duke lead. Cameron, which had been stupefied into somnolence as the Tar Heels built their lead by playing slightly less ugly basketball than Duke, burst into cacophony.

“Marvin, during that stretch, some of the best plays of any player in the country occurred during those few minutes by that kid,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He got angry. He didn't want to lose. The will he showed was phenomenal.”

Bagley has been, from the moment he walked on campus a year ahead of schedule, a boy among men and a man among boys. During the four games he missed with a knee injury, Duke seemed to play with more fluidity, Allen in particular, as if Bagley's talent had been a powerful gravitational force pulling things out of joint.

That may have been what led ESPN analyst Dan Dakich, on Monday during Duke's loss to Virginia Tech, to go way out on a limb with his criticism of Bagley, sounding more like a message-board conspiracy theorist than a network commentator. Honesty, in any broadcaster, is appreciated, but the tone of Dakich's criticism would have felt stark on an NBA broadcast.

“Bagley is all about Bagley,” Dakich said. “Honest to goodness, I can see in 18 minutes why Duke was able to go on a run when he was hurt. You hate to say that about a kid, but he is about himself.”

Bagley, who listened to the entire diatribe while rewatching the game, shot back on Twitter immediately and answered any further concerns with his performance Saturday.

“It was a silly statement to even say, to go on for that long about me,” Bagley said. “I heard what he said. It was dumb.”

Bagley shrugged off any connection between Dakich's criticism and his second-half outburst, and the foundation for it appeared to be Krzyzewski's decision, down 35-25, to abandon any structure on offense, let Trevon Duval penetrate and set Bagley and Wendell Carter loose under the basket.

In one sequence, Bagley hit a 3 and, after a Kenny Williams miss at the other end, had his layup attempt blocked by Theo Pinson. Bagley collected the ball in midair, bounced off the floor with even more height than his initial jump and drew a foul as he laid it in. North Carolina's lead had evaporated.

“He looked like a different animal,” Allen said. “For five or six minutes, he was unstoppable.”

A Duval lob for Bagley with 86 seconds to go made it 72-64, essentially clinching at that point the No. 2 seed in Brooklyn for Duke and relegating North Carolina to the sixth seed behind N.C. State, a state of affairs sure to rile Roy Williams as much as it will delight Wolfpack fans.

The common theme among Duke's players was that they are not done, that they expect this game to serve as a springboard for bigger things, in Brooklyn and beyond. Bagley is the Blue Devils' wild card. They were lost at the half, only to be saved by the kind of exceptional individual performance he is capable of providing.

Allen had four years to have an impact on a rivalry that underpins the entire season of both of these teams, and he exited victorious. One-and-done players like Bagley have to make the most of limited opportunities. Bagley didn't do much with his first. He did all he could with his second. Whether there's a third meeting or not, he left his mark Saturday.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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