CHAPEL HILL—On and off the court, Marvin Bagley III rarely shows emotion. 

But in the locker room after Thursday’s loss to North Carolina, the normally stoic big man had a towel over his head and stared into his lap. He was reticent at first when asked what happened in Duke’s second-half collapse. 

But after a few questions, Bagley unloaded after the Tar Heels wrangled the Blue Devils on the offensive glass to steal a win. 

“Coming out and not winning, that’s not going to fly, especially against that team,” Bagley said. “If I had to grade it, I’d say it was an F."

The grade wasn’t too far off—Duke had owned the boards against the nation’s top rebounding team at the outset, but imploded as the game wore on. North Carolina racked up 15 second-half offensive rebounds—tied for the most the Blue Devils had given up all year in an entire game. 

But it wasn’t necessarily the Tar Heels’ size that frustrated Bagley and Duke on the boards. Although North Carolina is an elite rebounding team, it isn’t especially big or athletic—it had no players taller than 6-foot-8 play significant minutes. Tar Heel guard Cameron Johnson racked up 13 rebounds from the perimeter, just two fewer than their two starting forwards combined. 

“It’s all five guys. A lot of their offensive rebounds were guys crashing from the perimeter,” Blue Devil senior captain Grayson Allen said. “We knew that was one of their strengths, and we failed to even limit it. That’s not just our big guys—that’s all of us. They’re crashing from the perimeter, so it’s all of our responsibility.”

Bagley himself had another strong night, notching a double-double with 15 points and 16 rebounds, but was limited offensively by impressive fronting from 6-foot-6 stretch forward Theo Pinson. Outside of Bagley, no Duke player made a real impact on the boards. 

It had to be even more frustrating for the Blue Devils after they set the tone early, grabbing six offensive rebounds to North Carolina’s one. 

“We have to be tougher,” backup center Marques Bolden said. “They got 20 offensive rebounds. You’re not going to win a game giving up 20 offensive rebounds. That was the biggest part of the game.”

Its ineptitude on the boards came to kill Duke when it mattered the most. After disintegrating for much of the second half, the Blue Devils had made it a one-possession game with just under five minutes left. 

Duke forced two missed 3-pointers, both of which Carolina stole back. Bagley then rejected a dunk attempt. Luke Maye got it and chucked up another 3-pointer, before North Carolina got another board and then missed a layup, which Bagley finally secured. 

The Tar Heels had the ball for more than a minute and took five shots. Duke couldn't score on its next possession, while North Carolina responded with a triple. Ballgame. 

Bagley thinks the issue is with reading the rebounds off the hoop. 

“When the ball bounces kind of high, you have to read where they shoot the ball,” Bagley said. “A deep shot is most likely going to be a far rebound. They shot the ball and they were already in the position where the balls were bouncing, so it was just that type of night.”

Whatever the reason, the Blue Devils just weren’t getting the job done. A 20-11 offensive rebounding margin won’t win many ACC games. 

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski experimented with a three-big-man lineup—Bolden, Bagley and Carter on the court together for a few minutes in the second half. He had tried the look in practice before and said he might have tried it earlier if Bolden was not sidelined with an MCL sprain. He feels the look is something that might work.

“We’ll see. We’ll go to a few different things,” Krzyzewski said. “But Marques did well. He gave us a huge lift in that first half, but he’s still not in the optimum playing shape that he hopefully will be soon, but he did a good job for us.”

Bolden fueled Duke's 21-7 run in the first half to take a commanding early lead with six points during that stretch, but grabbed just two boards in his 17 minutes on the floor. 

Fellow reserve big man and rebounding machine Javin DeLaurier played just one minute Thursday. Whatever the combination is for the Blue Devils going forward, something will have to change if they want to be a force to be reckoned with in March. 

“We’re 20-something games in,” Allen said. “We have to figure this out.”