CHAPEL HILL—The crowd at the Dean E. Smith Center fell silent once again Wednesday as the Blue Devil bench poured out onto the court.
There was no buzzer-beater from Austin Rivers to seal a furious 10-point comeback, but the feeling remained the same: What just happened?
The parallels were not lost on freshman Luke Kennard, whose 3-pointer from the corner gave the Blue Devils a 72-71 lead with 2:39 left.
“I was actually watching the Austin Rivers shot earlier today,” Kennard said. “I could tell that we had a little momentum going when I hit that shot.”
The deficit was not quite as large Wednesday and the time remaining not quite as alarming, but the Tar Heels once again held a sizable lead with Duke in danger of slipping too far behind to pose a late-game threat. A jumper by sophomore Justin Jackson widened the North Carolina lead to 68-60 with 6:49 left—the home team’s largest of the game—prompting a timeout by Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
But as has so often been the case in recent editions of the Tobacco Road rivalry, when the Blue Devils broke the huddle and came back onto the floor, they controlled crunch time, and the course of the game took a turn in favor of the darker shade of blue.
Duke closed the game on a 14-5 run, walking away with a 74-73 victory that—just by looking at the box score—defied explanation. North Carolina scored 52 points in the paint, outrebounded the Blue Devils 46-34 and racked up a 10-0 edge in fast-break points.
But the box score does not take heart into account.
Duke found itself more undermanned Wednesday night than it had been all season. With senior forward Amile Jefferson still out indefinitely with a fractured right foot, the Blue Devils lost Matt Jones to a left ankle injury in the first half when he came down awkwardly on North Carolina forward Brice Johnson’s foot.
Stuck with a six-man rotation, Duke turned the concept of depth on its head by resorting to desire and hustle. Not everything was flashy in the way Rivers and Tyus Jones engineered their comebacks in 2012 and 2015, but the Blue Devil underclassmen stepped up on the biggest stage of the regular season.
The biggest obstacle to cutting into the Tar Heel lead was finding a way to deal with Johnson. The Orangeburg, S.C., native used his athleticism to tear apart the Duke frontcourt on the glass, grabbing 19 rebounds—seven of them offensive—and turning errant jumpers into easy put-back dunks that helped North Carolina keep Duke at bay every time the Blue Devils threatened to come within two.
“They rebound the ball, they just play well together, they push the ball, and they were getting us there in the first half,” Kennard said.
Duke fell back against the ropes several times Wednesday, but the night’s most dangerous juncture arrived with 14:06 remaining in the second half. Marshall Plumlee went to the bench after registering his third and fourth fouls on consecutive plays just 13 seconds apart.
Freshman Chase Jeter subbed in for Plumlee, trying to give the Warsaw, Ind., native a break for as long as he could. But with Jeter struggling defensively, Krzyzewski rolled the dice, re-inserting Plumlee and his four fouls with 10:51 left. The Tar Heels had added two points to their lead in Plumlee’s absence and led 62-55.
If Plumlee was at all wary of fouling out with plenty of time left, he did not play like it. The 7-footer played tough defense—contesting shots without reaching in—and he grabbed two rebounds and scored in his first minute back on the court.
“Even though I had four fouls, you can’t afford to play tentatively. You have to still be aggressive,” Plumlee said. “I’m lucky I didn’t pick up that fifth foul, but I got to give a lot of credit to my teammates really pushing me to play my best ball.”
Offensively, the Blue Devils started to settle into a groove. Trailing 68-60, freshman Brandon Ingram took over scoring duties when it mattered most for the third straight game, rattling off three consecutive field goals.
And as Duke’s shots started to fall, the Tar Heel offense stagnated. Transition opportunities were bottled up, forcing North Carolina into its half-court offense, which translated into fewer shots for Johnson. Duke held North Carolina to just two offensive rebounds in the final 6:49—the Tar Heels had 18 for the game—preventing Johnson from soaring over the top for easy put-backs.
The Tar Heels finished the game 1-of-13 from beyond the arc, and Johnson took just one shot after the 12:55 mark. As North Carolina searched for answers, the Duke defense showed no sign of exhaustion despite zero substitutions following Plumlee’s return, and the offense went to work on the other end of the floor.
“We had a hard time stopping them in the first half, especially in transition—we just gave up points,” Krzyzewski said. “They’re quicker than anyone bringing it in, and they were all over the offensive boards, and we scored enough points to stay close. And then in the second half, we did a much better job on the defensive boards, and to give up only 27 points [in the second half] was key.”
Grayson Allen closed the deficit to just one with 4:19 to play, spinning past Marcus Paige while drawing contact and converting the 3-point play. After Paige split a pair of free throws, Kennard drained his second 3-pointer of the night, which gave Duke its first lead since the 11:20 mark in the first half.
The Tar Heels regained the lead, but with just more than a minute left, Paige lost the ball in a log-jam in the paint, and the ball slipped to Allen, who elected to drive in and draw contact rather than feed a nearby Kennard.
And after missing two free throws late in Duke’s win against Virginia Saturday, Allen had no such problems Wednesday.
“Grayson hit the two free throws—so that was pretty good,” Krzyzewski quipped.
The Tar Heels responded by getting the ball to Kennedy Meeks on the left baseline, but Allen secured the rebound. Thirty-one seconds later, North Carolina was down one with a chance to win.
But head coach Roy Williams elected not to call a timeout, instead allowing things to play out. The Tar Heels got Justin Jackson the ball near the elbow, but the sophomore was stonewalled by Allen and flipped it back outside to point guard Joel Berry II.
Berry II drove and tried to create space just inside the free-throw line, hoisting a desperate attempt to win the game.
Derryck Thornton blocked it instead.
And without a dramatic go-ahead shot like Rivers delivered four years ago, the short-handed Blue Devils pulled off the victory with pure determination.
“I just couldn’t stop smiling [after the game]. We were jumping up and down and we were just so excited,” Kennard said. “It was a huge win, and we just fought together. We got tired a little bit at the end, but it was kind of like a dream come true.”