Tar Heels use big first half to shoot past Blue Devils
In a press conference last Thursday, head coach Mike Krzyzewski said the Blue Devils might have lost to the Tar Heels in February by 20 points if not for a pair of well-timed 3-pointers from Austin Rivers. Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the freshman missed his two second-half attempts from beyond the arc, and Duke fell 88-70 to No. 6 North Carolina (27-4, 14-2 in the ACC) in a matchup that decided the regular season conference title.
Rivers’ misses were largely inconsequential, though, as the No. 4 Blue Devils (26-5, 13-3) fell behind by 24 at halftime after missing 17 straight shots in the opening period.
Miles Plumlee, who scored 16 points and grabbed 11 rebounds on his senior night, posted up Tyler Zeller for the first two Duke baskets of the game, but his team would not make another field goal until nearly eight minutes later, when Seth Curry hit a 3-pointer with 11:19 left in the first half. By then, North Carolina had built a 22-5 lead behind Zeller, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall, who combined to shoot 8-for-8 from the floor during that stretch.
“They hit a lot of tough shots tonight. I just think we didn’t shoot the ball as well as we usually do,” Rivers said. “We have a lot of great shooters on our team, and we usually shoot the hell out of it.”
Marshall, averaging just 6.8 points per game before Saturday, was also effective as a scorer Saturday night, scoring a game-high 20 points to go with 10 assists and four rebounds. He now stands just four assists shy of Ed Cota’s ACC single-season record 284.
“He’s the ultimate point guard,” Krzyzewski said. “He was great tonight.”
As a team, the Tar Heels shot 52.6 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes, while the Blue Devils made just 9-of-34 attempts from the floor, including just 2-of-11 from beyond the arc.
“I thought we were trying to beat them and us in the first half,” Krzyzewski said. “When we don’t shoot well, their talent and our demeanor is a bad mix.”
Zeller and Henson were unstoppable on the interior in the first half, grabbing a combined 15 boards as the Tar Heels out-rebounded Duke 32-15 and scored 22 points in the paint compared to the Blue Devils’ 10. Zeller finished with 19 points on 9-for-11 shooting and 10 rebounds, while Henson added 13 points and 10 boards.
Miles Plumlee led Duke out of the locker room in the second half with the team’s first basket, and the team went on a 10-0 run to get back within 16 points.
“We just had to fight,” Plumlee said. “There’s no game plan for what we didn’t do in the first half.”
Once again, though, Zeller and Henson responded on the interior to lead the Tar Heels back to a 22-point lead with just under 12 minutes remaining.
The Blue Devils began to heat up from the field, making six consecutive baskets over the next three minutes, slowly chipping away at North Carolina’s lead. A pair of Miles Plumlee free throws cut the Tar Heel lead to 11 with 6:01 left, and both Zeller and Barnes were on the bench with four fouls.
But Duke could not capitalize, missing two opportunities on the ensuing possession to reduce the deficit to single digits. After a defensive stand on the other end of the court, Rivers was fouled and went to the free throw line. He missed the front end of a one-and-one, though, and the Tar Heels scored on consecutive possessions to extend the lead to 15 with three minutes left, solidifying their seventh ACC regular-season title in 12 years.
“We always want to see how little we have to do to win,” Miles Plumlee said. “You give a team like that a 20-point lead and it’s nearly impossible to come back.”