Back on Feb. 8, 2012, Duke silenced a capacity crowd at the Dean E. Smith Center with a 10-point comeback the final 2:38. No one seemed have a great explanation as to how the Blue Devils escaped a team that was dominating them in the paint 42-14 and on the glass 42-35.
“I’ve never seen an arena stunned like that,” Seth Curry said after that game.
A little more than three years later, Duke did it again to its arch-rival. Except this time, the lasting images were not of a step-back, buzzer-beating 3-pointer, an inopportune tip-in by North Carolina underneath its own basket or utter disbelief from the home crowd.
Instead, the final 3:17 of regulation Wednesday night was defined by the Blue Devils playing small ball, another brilliant performance by a true freshman for the second time in four years against the same team and the relief of fans who were silenced late in the first half.
Just as it did during Duke's comeback three years ago, it all started with a key rebound leading to a timely 3-pointer. Instead of Tyler Thornton on the finishing end, this time it was Justise Winslow knocking down the spurt-igniting shot. The swingman converted his first field goal in more than 15 minutes of play following a baseline drive from Tyus Jones—the game's hero—but the play was all set up by a defensive rebound.
It may not seem like much, but Jahlil Okafor's rebound was huge, with North Carolina rebounding more than 40 percent of its misses during the game and scoring 21 second-chance points—almost all of which contributed to the team's 62 points in the paint. After that board, Duke got out in transition to find Winslow on the wing after scoring just 18 points in the half's first 16:53, utilizing the small lineup that engineered late comebacks against St. John's and No. 2 Virginia.
"It opens it up," Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski said of the lineup. "Part of the comeback was Jah being able to go one-on-one and then we started driving. But you can't do that with another big in."
Then, as was the case during the memorable 2012 comeback, Duke was in rally mode and used a timeout to start extending the game.
In the timeout, Krzyzewski told his team it was going to win, but the next possession probably made him one of the few people watching who believed that.
The Blue Devils' magical run hit the first of many roadblocks when North Carolina swingman J.P. Tokoto—who had 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists—knocked down a jumper to push the lead back to nine with 2:40 left.
Winslow and Okafor teamed up again to come up with a quick response, though, as the center fed the Houston native for a two-handed jam. Playing small continued to pay dividends when Duke forced a miss from Preseason ACC Player of the Year Marcus Paige—who went just 2-of-11 for five points—and sophomore guard Matt Jones snagged the rebound with 1:50 left.
The DeSoto, Texas, native was just getting started with his glue-guy moments.
After Winslow took advantage of another driving lane and got fouled, he missed both free throws—part of Duke's woeful 16-of-31 effort from the charity stripe—but Jones was there to save the day. The 6-foot-5 guard exited a scrum under the hoop with the ball, and after a Tyus Jones missed triple and a Winslow offensive rebound, the Blue Devils' poised point guard drove in for two to cut the lead to five with 1:25 left.
Many will forget Matt Jones' contribution, but the hug he received from forward Amile Jefferson in the ensuing timeout showed how big the extra possession was.
What made it bigger was what happened next.
Tar Heel center Kennedy Meeks—who his head coach Roy Williams said is the "best passer I've ever had" in outlet-pass situations—overthrew Paige on a long pass going for the dagger, giving Duke the ball back underneath North Carolina's basket.
Although Tyus Jones committed one of his career-high six turnovers on the next play, Meeks' errant pass inbounds pass was the first hint that the Blue Devils could realistically be on the verge of another epic comeback—and another devastating Tar Heels collapse.
Sophomore guard Nate Britt—a 90.2 percent foul shooter who had missed just five free throws all year—then missed the front end of a one-and-one. Five seconds later, Tyus Jones cashed in by knocking down a pair of free throws to cut the lead to three with 1:16 to play.
Just as in 2012, in a little more than two minutes, Duke found new life to set the stage for its point guard.
Jones took over like he has so often this season, driving hard into the chest of Joel Berry II for an old-fashioned three-point play after North Carolina forward Brice Johnson made two free throws with 47 seconds left. The Tar Heels' latest five-point lead lasted all of seven seconds after Jones' seventh point in 45 seconds cut the lead to two for the first time since the 8:29 mark.
"Sometimes he would rather have someone else do it, but when he took the wheel, the car finished in first place," Krzyzewski said.
After Johnson missed the front end of a one-and-one, Jones came up big yet again, using a Winslow screen to swoop into the paint for an uncontested layup. A game that seemed over just 1:56 earlier was suddenly tied.
And as was the case in 2012, no one really had the words to describe the way it happened or the emotions of its aftermath.
After a Paige miss before the buzzer, the Tobacco Road rivals went to overtime for the first time since 2004. The Blue Devils played their small lineup throughout the extra session to gain the upper hand, but could not close it out entirely by going 3-of-9 from the free throw line. Senior Quinn Cook—who had missed just six foul shots all year—missed a pair of freebies that kept North Carolina alive, but the Tar Heels could not convert a purposefully missed free throw by Britt on the game's final play.
After another unlikely comeback that will be etched into the history of the storied rivalry, Duke had shown the fortitude to come up with a win and give the thousands of screaming fans courtside and millions watching around the world a breather.
By the end, they all had one thing in common.
"They [saw] how big this rivalry is and why it's the greatest rivalry in sports," Tyus Jones said.
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