NEW YORK—When Jayson Tatum missed a left wing 3-pointer with about 13 minutes left, the ball rolled softly toward the left elbow between North Carolina star Justin Jackson and Duke's Grayson Allen.
It was a classic 50-50 ball, the kind that decide big-time games and that the Blue Devils' best teams always seem to get.
Allen came up with it, immediately firing the ball into the left corner to Luke Kennard. As the sophomore lefty let the shot fly, Tar Heel guard Nate Britt hit him on the arm, but not even that could prevent the shot from going in.
The comeback kids were at it again.
Kennard's four-point play came after a Jayson Tatum dunk and started a game-changing 15-2 run that fifth-seeded Duke used to tie the game, then upset No. 1 seed North Carolina 93-83 Friday night in the ACC tournament's first semifinal at the Barclays Center. Allen, Kennard and Tatum again played like one of the best trios in the nation, combining for 62 points led by Tatum's 24 and withstanding North Carolina's early barrage in the paint before Duke raised its defensive intensity in the second half.
After taking their first lead with about nine minutes left, the Blue Devils used another 7-0 spurt capped by a Harry Giles alley-oop to take control. An Amile Jefferson layup and Tatum dunk put the team firmly in command, giving Duke a nine-point edge with 2:31 remaining.
The Blue Devils then celebrated their second win against a top-10 opponent in less than 48 hours—a testament to how far they have come from the injury-riddled unit that looked lost at times to start ACC play two months ago.
“It’s like night and day,” senior Matt Jones said of the difference between Duke now and at the start of the season. “We envisioned playing for championships. We didn’t know how we were going to get there but we played really well today, we’ve been playing really well and we have to keep it going.”
The sixth-ranked Tar Heels (27-7) looked to be on their way to a second win against their rival this week, taking a 61-48 lead on a Kennedy Meeks layup with about 13 minutes remaining as they dominated the paint in the game's first 27 minutes.
But the Blue Devils (26-8) used their 15-2 run highlighted by Allen knocking down a corner triple and Kennard's four-point play to pull within two with 10:21 remaining.
A Frank Jackson triple from the right wing—again after Allen collapsed the defense—then gave Duke its first lead at 66-65 with 9:02 left in the contest as the Blue Devils finally started stringing together stops, holding North Carolina to 2-of-9 shooting during the run as it shut off the paint.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski said he wanted his team to finally get Allen, Kennard, Tatum and Jackson all in rhythm at the same time, and that was the case in the second half. Despite an 0-of-5 start, Jackson scored 15 second-half points to play his part in the rally.
As Duke rode its four potent scorers to 59.1 percent second-half shooting, the Tar Heels floundered with point guard Joel Berry II out with four fouls, making just 28.6 percent of its attempts after halftime. ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson shot just 6-of-22 as the Blue Devils’ offense fueled their defense a day after the reverse was true.
The tying run started with a Tatum dunk and Krzyzewski timeout to implore his team to make a bigger push. Forty seconds later, Kennard’s four-point play had Duke within seven.
“[The four-point play] was the play of the game for us,” Krzyzewski said. “Jayson's move and [Allen and Kennard]—these two guys are very, very special competitors. And then we just fought, and it worked out.”
The Tar Heels were too strong inside to stay silent in the paint, forcing Tatum's fourth foul at the 7:34 mark before Britt tied the game shortly after. Tatum’s fourth came after Jefferson also had to sit out following a fourth personal with 9:41 remaining.
Despite that adversity, Jackson gave his team the lead right back with a lefty layup inside, then Allen set up Kennard for another left wing 3-pointer to put Duke up by five.
That's when it happened.
Giles—who played major second-half minutes for the second straight game—finally had his shining moment, rejecting a shot on one end, sprinting on the other end and throwing down a ferocious alley-oop with less than 5:30 remaining to complete the 7-0 run. Giles finished with a career-high four blocks to go with six points and seven boards in the win.
The Blue Devil team many expected entering the season had finally come together in the second half Friday night.
“Once I got rolling, I could stop thinking, just went out there and played ball and just do what I do and just have fun with it too,” Giles said.
North Carolina came out of the gates strong to begin the game, never letting Duke get comfortable early on, starting the game on a 10-4 run by pounding the ball inside and relentlessly forcing the ball in the paint as Allen made his first four 3-pointers to keep his team close.
The Jacksonville, Fla., native seems to be embracing his new role off the bench, and looked as good as he has all year to prevent his team from getting knocked out in the opening 20 minutes.
“It's just coming in and trying to explode. I've been able to do that the last two days, and I want to continue to do that,” Allen said.
Although the Tar Heels stretched the lead to 13 with 2:21 left in the first half, Tatum quickly got the Blue Devils back within striking distance with a personal 7-1 spurt to end the half.
Despite another strong start from North Carolina in the second half, Duke was able to weather the storm and mount a double-digit comeback for the second straight day.
And now it will have the chance to become the first team ever to win four games in four days to win the ACC tournament Saturday night at 9 p.m. against No. 3 seed Notre Dame.
“We’ve been coming for a long time, and we’re not there yet, but we’ve been fighting,” Jefferson said. “We’ve been learning how to fight together, and that’s a beautiful thing.”