The Tar Heels grabbed everything Saturday night.
They grabbed the ACC regular-season title outright. They grabbed their first win in Durham since 2012. They grabbed back bragging rights in the Tobacco Road rivalry after four straight losses.
And they did it by grabbing 64 rebounds.
“I knew that they would get their fair share [of rebounds]—I didn’t know they were going to beat us by the margin that they beat us,” junior Matt Jones said. “That in itself is surprising.”
Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks combined for 30 points and 35 rebounds as No. 8 North Carolina bruised its way past No. 17 Duke 76-72 Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium, spoiling Senior Night for Marshall Plumlee. The Tar Heels scored 42 of their 76 points—20 of them off of second, third and fourth chances from 27 offensive rebounds—in the paint and five players finished in double-figures.
Grayson Allen scored 29 points—including five in the final minute—and Luke Kennard hit a corner triple with less than 10 seconds left to pull within two, but three Tar Heels went a perfect 8-of-8 at the charity stripe in the last 25 seconds to ward off another late Blue Devil comeback.
Duke trailed 68-59 with 3:22 left, but cut it to a single-possession game three times in the last 20 seconds.
North Carolina senior Marcus Paige shot just 3-of-10 from the floor—including 1-of-8 from downtown—but sunk four of those critical free throws, the final two pushing the Tar Heel lead back to four and denying the Blue Devils a chance to tie with a prayer at the buzzer.
“If I had to pick anybody in the country to step to the line in that situation, I wanted Marcus Paige over anybody else,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said. “He was pretty doggone good.”
Just as in the first meeting Feb. 17 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (25-6, 14-4 in the ACC) dominated the glass, with Meeks teaming up with Johnson to corral nearly every contested rebound. The Tar Heel starting frontcourt pulled down 16 rebounds in the first half and poured in 18 points as Williams' squad outrebounded the Blue Devils 30-10.
“They were getting three or four shots a possession down there just because we couldn’t rebound,” Allen said. “You’re not going to win a ballgame like that.”
That discrepancy only got wider in the second half, with North Carolina almost finishing with more offensive rebounds than Duke's total 29 boards. On a few possessions, the Tar Heels got as many as six looks at the basket, coming up empty but simply snatching the ball back and rising again from point-blank range.
The Blue Devils (22-9, 11-7) switched to a 2-3 zone once freshman Brandon Ingram left with two fouls midway through the first half, and stuck with it exclusively after halftime. The switch worked initially—Duke shaved eight points off the Tar Heel lead after Ingram sat down—but continued to cause problems as the Blue Devils tried to keep Johnson and Meeks off the glass.
“We didn’t do a bad job of [playing zone] except for rebounding,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We didn’t finish the exchange on the rebound, and it’s what they do. They do that as well as any team in the country.”
After being held scoreless in the first 20 minutes with just one shot attempt, Ingram took four of Duke’s first five shots out of the break, finally getting on the board by bulldozing his way through Justin Jackson in the lane.
On the other end, the Blue Devils stayed in the zone as the Tar Heels missed their first 11 shots of the half. After Joel Berry II broke the long drought with a 3-pointer, Kennard responded with one of his own, keeping the margin at five and igniting a big run.
Back-to-back triples from Allen and Ingram brought Duke to within one, and after a Meeks bucket down low, Allen splashed home the Blue Devils’ fourth straight 3-pointer from the top of the key to tie the game at 49.
Williams—who had resisted using a timeout while the Blue Devils whittled the deficit from eight down to zero—called one then, and told his team to respond, just as they did in the first half when Duke closed to within 25-22.
They did again.
Allen stepped in front of a pass on the ensuing possession, but Theo Pinson poked it away from him and set up Jackson for a lay-up. The sophomore missed, and Pinson—true to the story of the game—out-jumped the Blue Devils for the tip-in. On the other end, Allen fired a 3-pointer and fell down, with the long rebound trickling out to Jackson, who fed Paige for another transition basket.
The Tar Heels had taken Duke’s best punch, and turned what looked likely to be the Blue Devils’ first lead of the night into a 53-49 North Carolina lead, forcing Krzyzewski to stop things just 37 seconds later.
Johnson took just one shot in the first 10 minutes of the second half, but got going again with several short jumpers as the Blue Devils went cold, missing eight of 10 shots. Berry II knocked down a corner 3-pointer—one of just four North Carolina triples Saturday—to push the lead back to seven, then weaved in and out of traffic on a coast-to-coast drive to put the Tar Heels ahead 68-59.
Allen scored eight straight Duke points to help trim the deficit to three, but North Carolina capped its 20-of-23 performance at the charity stripe with eight straight makes.
Duke made just four of its first 16 shots, falling into a 20-9 hole—but heated up to finish 13-of-34 from downtown. The problems came at the free-throw line, where the Blue Devils were 9-of-15. Known for his aggressive drives to the rim, Allen took just two free throws all night, and split the pair.
“We have to get to the foul line, which is what we’ve done a lot this season until lately because we don’t have an inside game,” Krzyzewski said. “The 3-point shooting is complemented by the free throws, and that’s who we are. Tonight wasn’t conducive to that. Their rebounding was fantastic. Brice gets 21, and they more than doubled our rebounds, and still we had a chance to win. We were right there.”
The loss drops Duke into the No. 5 seed in next week’s ACC tournament in Washington, where the Blue Devils will play either Wake Forest or N.C. State Wednesday afternoon.
“We’ve had a stretch in ACC play where we’ve rebounded well, and we fought down there and we played together offensively and defensively and put a full game together,” Allen said. “But today that wasn’t the case. If we play like this in the postseason, it’s not going to be good.”
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