Although Austin Rivers’ buzzer beater instantly became a part of Duke-North Carolina lore Wednesday night, the real fiber of the game was the battle between two contrasting styles. The Blue Devils pulled out the 85-84 comeback win as their perimeter-oriented offense endured against the Tar Heels’ interior attack.
Duke came out of the gates showing no hesitation to shoot early in the shot clock from anywhere on the floor. Rivers set the tone early, hitting two deep 3-pointers and scoring 10 of the Blue Devils’ first 12 points. With just under eight minutes left in the first half, the Blue Devils had already attempted 13 shots from beyond the arc, connecting on six of them, on their way to a 32-25 lead.
“We have a lot of guys that can shoot 3s,” Rivers said. “If you look at our starting lineup, four or five guys are great shooters. A lot of people are saying they miss shots, but we shoot the ball with confidence.”
As strong as Duke’s perimeter shooting was, though, North Carolina’s effort in the paint was equally as potent. With a starting lineup featuring four players 6-foot-7 or taller, the Tar Heels had a size advantage at every position and capitalized on the discrepancy.
North Carolina dominated the glass for the duration of the game’s first 20 minutes, ripping down 22 rebounds compared to Duke’s 15, with 10 of those coming off the offensive glass. On many possessions, the Blue Devil defense was strong enough to force an errant shot, but they failed to finish the play with a defensive rebound.
This advantage on the offensive backboards enabled North Carolina to score 20 points inside the paint, dwarfing Duke’s six. Converting many of these opportunities was Tyler Zeller, who had 19 points and 8 rebounds in the first half alone.
“I think we defended them well all night,” Seth Curry said. “They are really big, and it’s tough to keep them off the backboards. Even though we didn’t do a good job all night, we were able to do just enough when it counted most.”
Despite finishing the half 7-of-17 from downtown and leading for the entire period until the final minute, Duke went into the locker room trailing 43-40. Although the coaching staff made a few adjustments, even borrowing from the Tar Heels’ approach by making a concerted effort to get the ball inside to Mason Plumlee, the Blue Devils stuck to the strategy they felt best fit the matchups. By utilizing Ryan Kelly on the perimeter as a stretch power forward, they were able pull lanky shot blocker John Henson away from the rim and capitalize on his inability to close out to the 3-point line.
“We knew that we could get outside shots,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “They’re really big, bigger than us at every position. You just can’t battle them inside. They have a lot of weapons in there.”
The Blue Devils missed their first four 3-pointers of the second half and as a result fell behind by 13 points just four minutes into the period. Rivers helped cut into that lead as he nailed back-to-back 3-pointers. Tar Heel leading-scorer Harrison Barnes would answer Rivers’ challenge, though, scoring seven consecutive points, helping maintain his team’s double-digit lead.
Although Duke was unable to slash the North Carolina lead to anything less than eight until there were under three minutes on the clock, it did a better job of neutralizing the length of the Tar Heel frontcourt players.
“The first half was poor on our part,” Ryan Kelly said. “They got basically whatever they wanted on the offensive glass. We weren’t happy with where we were at, but fortunately, we turned it around.”
Similar to the opening half, North Carolina tallied 22 points in the paint compared to Duke’s eight. Duke, however, managed to pull down eight offensive rebounds in the second half, while the Tar Heels collected just five of its own misses. This advantage manifested itself in 13 second-chance points for the Blue Devils to just six for the Tar Heels.
The other benefit of the Blue Devils’ more purposeful play in the lane was putting North Carolina into early foul trouble. With 9:08 remaining, the Tar Heels picked up their 10th team foul, putting Duke into the double bonus the rest of the way.
Although the Blue Devils were just 10-for-17 from the charity stripe, the free points with the clock stopped helped them keep the game within striking distance. North Carolina was even worse from the line, going 8-for-15, giving Duke just enough opportunity to overcome the deficit.
Still, when it mattered most, it came back to Duke’s perimeter shooting. Thornton, Curry, and Rivers each hit a 3-pointer in the game’s last 2:08, leaving the Blue Devils 14-for-36 from distance on the game. The Tar Heels, on the other hand, went just 1-for-6 from downtown.
Duke certainly did not dominate the game in the painted area, as North Carolina won the rebounding battle by a count of 42 to 35 and had 42 points in the paint to the Blue Devils’ 14. Ultimately, though, Duke’s timely perimeter shooting and ability to hold its own on the inside when it counted most prevailed.
“We never gave up,” Krzyzewski said. “Carolina is just really good. They can knock you out, and we didn’t get knocked out. As a result, we hung in there and won the last round. I’m not sure we won the entire fight, but we were out there fighting the whole time.”