CHAPEL HILL—The Blue Devils never panicked Wednesday night.
Not when Brice Johnson steamrolled through the paint for 18 points and 11 rebounds in the first half. Not when junior Matt Jones left the game midway through the first half after landing awkwardly on his left ankle.
Not when center Marshall Plumlee picked up his fourth foul early in the second half, joining fellow captains Jones and Amile Jefferson on the Duke sideline, leaving one sophomore and four freshmen on the floor under the brightest of bright lights.
Backed into a corner, the No. 20 Blue Devils took their punches. But they stayed upright, gathered themselves, then landed the biggest blow of the night to emerge with their gutsiest win of the year.
Behind 43 points from the duo of Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram, the No. 20 Blue Devils fought back from an eight-point second-half deficit to steal a 74-73 victory at the Dean E. Smith Center, stunning No. 5 North Carolina and spoiling Johnson's 29-point, 19-rebound performance. Utilizing a five-man rotation, Duke did not substitute for the final 10:51, but the Blue Devils overcame fatigue to stay right with the Tar Heels into the closing minutes, then made their move to win their fourth straight game in the Tobacco Road rivalry.
“We have a lot of guys who are fighters. Even if they miss some shots, even if they get tired, they’re going to keep fighting," Plumlee said. "I’m so proud of my teammates—I love them.”
Following an Allen miss with Duke up one and the shot clock winding down, North Carolina came down the floor with 20 seconds remaining and opted not to call one of its three remaining timeouts. But the Tar Heels were unable to get the ball to Johnson or a big man down low, and guard Joel Berry II’s potential game-winning shot in the lane was blocked by the outstretched arm of freshman Derryck Thornton, preserving Duke's second straight one-point win.
“I wasn’t thinking about anything other than that play,” Thornton said. “I know it’s going to be a big play. Either he’s going to make it or I’m going to get a stop, so I really put everything on the line to stop him and I did a decent job.”
The Blue Devils (20-6, 9-4 in the ACC) trailed for nearly the entire game, several times getting within four points only to be rebuffed. But Duke mounted one final comeback in the closing minutes, taking the lead on a pair of Allen free throws with 1:09 left. Allen and Ingram scored 13 straight points down the stretch for the Blue Devils to work back from a 68-60 deficit before freshman Luke Kennard's corner 3-pointer put Duke ahead 72-71—its first lead since the Blue Devils led 20-18 with 11:56 left in the first half.
After Kennedy Meeks answered for the Tar Heels with a second-chance bucket, Ingram misfired on a 3-pointer, but Plumlee deflected Marcus Paige's pass on the ensuing North Carolina possession, sending the ball into the hands of Allen. The sophomore drove downcourt and was fouled by Berry II, heading to the line for the game-tying and go-ahead free throws.
"I don't think we were lucky to win this game. I thought we fought hard and earned it," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "This is an incredible win for our kids. It was a heck of a game."
Ingram started 2-of-10 from the field, but stepped up in the second half, finishing with 20 points and 10 rebounds and keeping the Blue Devils afloat as North Carolina extended its lead to as many as eight with 6:49 left.
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Although Johnson did not top his 39-point, 23-rebound performance from a January matchup against Florida State, the senior was all over the floor for the Tar Heels, helping North Carolina (21-5, 10-3) impose its will inside. The Blue Devils allowed 52 points in the paint, including 25 second-chance points. Seven of Johnson's 19 rebounds came on the offensive glass.
But the Tar Heels seemed to go away from Johnson down the stretch, settling for mid-range jumpers and 3-pointers. Starting guards Berry II and Paige combined for just 15 points on 4-of-22 shooting, and Paige missed all six of his 3-point attempts.
The game appeared to turn for the worst for the Blue Devils with 7:43 left in the first half, when Jones landed on Johnson's shoe after attempting an errant floater. The junior stayed on the floor in pain as the Tar Heels raced down the floor for another easy basket that increased the North Carolina lead to 30-24, then had to be helped off the floor. Jones later returned to the bench on crutches.
Even after losing a second captain to injury, Duke stayed within striking distance, keeping the same five players on the floor for the rest of the half. Allen came out of the gates in attack mode and set the tone with an array of finishes near the hoop. But Ingram—fiercely recruited by Tar Heel head coach Roy Williams—struggled early on. The Kinston, N.C., native showed the ability to get by Johnson off the dribble, but missed numerous point-blank looks near the hoop.
“There’s a lot of pressure on [Ingram], not just here,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s 18 and he’s not ready to be who he will be. There’s a toughness element with that, you know like, “It's not going to be my night—no, I’m going to work through it.'”
With Ingram struggling early, another new face in the Tobacco Road Rivalry rose to the occasion. Kennard did his best to provide a boost off the bench as he scored seven straight points for the Blue Devils after entering the contest. Along with the freshman on the perimeter, Duke got a big lift from center Marshall Plumlee, who recorded 10 first-half points.
Johnson opened the second half with six straight points and helped North Carolina stretch its lead to seven. Plumlee picked up his fourth foul with 14:06 left headed to the bench, leaving Allen and four freshmen on the floor to deal with the veteran Tar Heels.
But with the odds stacked against them, the Blue Devils hung tight. With Ingram heating up from the floor and Allen getting to the rim, the Blue Devils found themselves trailing by just two with a little more than nine minutes to go in the game. North Carolina made another effort to pull away, but time and time again, the five on the floor for Duke responded. Plumlee returned with 10:51 left and avoided a fifth foul, thanks in part to North Carolina's hesitancy to get Johnson the ball in scoring position.
“We don’t stop attacking,” Allen said. “We’re not worried about one, two, three, four, five shots getting blocked. Obviously, you make an adjustment, but we’re just going to keep attacking. We’ve always been about the next play, next game, next everything, so it’s the same mindset.”
With Jones' status up in the air, the Blue Devils will have to bottle up the fight, grit and energy they showed Wednesday. They'll need it Saturday at No. 18 Louisville.