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Duke men's basketball's toughness showing up at a perfect time

<p>The Blue Devils got multiple 50-50 balls Thursday, which helped them manage to outrebound North Carolina for the first time since 2014.&nbsp;</p>

The Blue Devils got multiple 50-50 balls Thursday, which helped them manage to outrebound North Carolina for the first time since 2014. 

On the stat sheet following the first Tobacco Road rivalry matchup of 2017, the rebounding column read: Duke 31, North Carolina 30.

Although no one miss truly decided the game, one rebound in the Blue Devils’ 86-78 win Thursday swung the balance of the contest.

With Duke leading 80-77, the Blue Devils worked the ball around on offense looking for a potential game-sealing bucket. But freshman Jayson Tatum’s 3-pointer clanked off the iron and the ball bounced long, giving both teams a chance to come away with possession.

For the Tar Heels, squeezing the orange meant having the opportunity to inch closer or tie the game. For Duke, a rebound meant the chance to run some more clock and ice a much-needed home victory against the ACC’s first-place team.

And when it comes to a game-defining hustle play, Duke knows there is one player it can always rely on.

“I’ve been here long enough to where, that play could either win us the game or lose us the game, and for me, I just had to get the ball,” senior Matt Jones said. “It didn’t matter if I fouled or anything like that. I just needed to get it and luckily it bounced our way.”

Jones did corral the board with 37 seconds remaining in the contest and quickly got the ball to freshman Frank Jackson, forcing the Tar Heels to foul in hopes of extending the game. With a few clutch free-throws, the Blue Devils had a season-defining win against North Carolina in their hands.

But the story of how Duke outrebounded a North Carolina team that entered the game leading the nation in rebounding margin has more than one character.

The Blue Devils stressed the importance of having five players rebound at a time against the Tar Heels, and it showed with Jones and guards Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard combining to account for nearly a third of the team’s boards.

“That was one of our main focuses throughout the game—scouting report, everything,” Kennard said. “We rebound great as a group, we really did. We were hungry for the ball. We were really hungry for the ball. Wherever it was, we were right there to get it.”

With graduate student Amile Jefferson battling foul trouble in the first half with a pair of early personals, Tatum set the tone for Duke on the glass as he used his size and athleticism to battle the ground-bound Kennedy Meeks. Tatum finished with a game-high nine rebounds just two games after he racked up 14 boards in his first career double-double against Notre Dame.

“It was tough,” Tatum said. “It was a big point for us—rebounding—because they’re so big and it just took a lot of effort.”

After being snake-bitten by injuries for much of the year, the injury luck took a bit of a turn in Duke’s favor when North Carolina starting big man Isaiah Hicks was ruled out for the game with a strained hamstring. Although Tar Heel head coach Roy Williams refused to use the senior’s absence as an excuse, the Blue Devils had life a little bit easier without another 6-foot-9 big man roaming the interior.

Duke’s ability to keep the Tar Heels at bay on the offensive glass—after head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team allowed 27 offensive rebounds in Cameron a year ago—mirrored the same extra effort that translated to the Blue Devil defense.

After North Carolina connected on eight straight field goal attempts early in the second half, Duke clamped down and held the Tar Heels to just a single made field goal in the last seven minutes of the game. North Carolina’s star duo of Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson was held quiet during the stretch and combined to miss four crucial free-throws on a night the Tar Heels shot just 10-of-18 from the charity stripe.

Although North Carolina finished the game shooting 52.5 percent from the floor, the Blue Devils prevented the Tar Heels from beating them from beyond the arc and opening up space for Meeks and rookie Tony Bradley. For the game, North Carolina hit just four of its 12 3-pointers and struggled to generate good looks down the stretch—Duke has now locked down four straight opponents to turn its season around.

“Our defense is what’s going to ultimately help us win games,” guard Frank Jackson said. “We’ve really taken that to heart the last couple of weeks.”

Knowing that the speed of guards has hurt them at times this season, the Blue Devils relied heavily on their man-to-man trap and continued to push the Tar Heels farther and farther away from the hoop.

Despite the fact that North Carolina torched Duke in transition early in the game, the Blue Devils hung tough and eventually flustered the Tar Heels as their shots stopped falling.

At times when it looked like Duke could fold, instead it came up with the extra dose needed to pull away in a back-and-forth contest that saw nine ties and 17 lead changes.

“They’re good defensively. They can move very well at times,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said. “They have a lot of guys that are similar size-wise. I didn’t like our rebounding. I didn’t like our lack of scoring inside. But I guess it’s North Carolina-Duke. Kids are going to be really competitive.”

At times, the Blue Devils’ fire on defense has been questioned as the team has let teams roll to the hoop for uncontested looks.

But after taking down the ACC’s top scorers in Pittsburgh’s Jamel Artis and Michael Young a week ago and shutting down Jackson and Berry late Thursday, Duke has shown their ability to put in the extra effort and come up with hustle plays.

Heading down the stretch of the season, that could make all the difference.

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