CHAPEL HILL - J.J. Redick had just rescued Duke from what was nearly a devastating collapse at the hands of North Carolina Tuesday night.
The senior guard had scored 35 points, including two clutch three-pointers in the final two minutes that allowed the Blue Devils to escape from a game they could have-and perhaps should have-lost.
But walking off the court at the Dean Smith Center, Redick was still reeling from the mistakes that nearly cost Duke down the stretch. With Tar Heel fans still heckling him, an exhausted Redick clapped his hands together and screamed at himself while exiting.
Minutes later, celebration sounds emanated from the Duke locker room after the 87-83 victory. Redick, however, was pragmatic in his assessment of the Blue Devils' victory-he said he was happy with a win in his final game in Chapel Hill but disappointed with some aspects of his own late-game execution.
With 41 seconds to go, Josh McRoberts inbounded the ball to Redick, who was immediately double-teamed. Redick passed cross-court to point guard Greg Paulus, but the ball sailed over the freshman's head and out of bounds next to UNC's bench. The turnover gave the Tar Heels the ball back, down just three points with 37 seconds remaining.
"It was a dumb turnover, right at the end when I threw it out of bounds," a drained Redick said. "When I get doubled we need to have better communication. I need to make better passes, I need to handle it better, I need to have guys coming to the ball. I was just frustrated about that."
The Blue Devils survived, despite the late-game slip-up and North Carolina turning a 17-point Duke lead into a five-point Tar Heel margin over the course of 12 minutes in the second half. There were other contributions-including Paulus and McRoberts' key free throws in the final two minutes-but Redick was the primary reason Duke won the tough game in rival territory.
Once again, Redick showed how important it is to have an extremely talented senior who craves the opportunity to take big shots. Besides just the two three-pointers in the final two minutes, the senior was instrumental in bringing Duke back from its biggest deficit, down 71-66 with 4:33 to go.
He nailed a three over UNC's Wes Miller on the Blue Devils' next possession, and swished two free throws with 3:37 left to tie the game at 71. A heavily-guarded Redick also dished the ball to Sean Dockery in the corner with less than three minutes remaining, allowing his fellow senior to knock down a crucial long-range jumper.
Leading Duke like that almost seems like the norm now for the nation's best player.
Even so, the fact that Redick and the Blue Devils almost let the Tar Heels complete an improbable comeback should worry Duke. Against Florida State and Boston College last week, the Blue Devils turned the ball over in similar situations during the final minute of regulation. Those two, and Redick's errant pass to Paulus against North Carolina, do not exemplify the type of late-game savvy necessary to win come tournament time.
"It's tough to even describe because the last three games we've been in situations like that and we've pulled through," Redick said. "We've shown enough resiliency, made enough plays or maybe one or two free throws just to pull it out."
Redick should be applauded for his maturity and leadership in realizing how close Duke came to losing.
This matchup's outcome will not mean a great deal as the Blue Devils attempt to win their fourth national championship. But the faulty ball-handling down the stretch will.
If Duke cannot clean up its final-minute execution, there may very well come a time when Redick's late threes do not fall and the team is sent home empty-handed.
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