This is what we all expected.
Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Jayson Tatum showing off their shot-making ability to carry Duke. Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II getting loose in transition to spark the Tar Heels.
And an offensive display that came down to the game’s waning minutes.
We got what we expected Thursday night, and it was an unlikely Matt Jones offensive rebound that might have saved the signature win the Cameron Crazies have been craving for so long.
With his team up three, Jones corralled a Tatum miss with 37 seconds left that led to a Frank Jackson free throw and game-sealing defensive stop in No. 18 Duke’s 86-78 win against No. 8 North Carolina Thursday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Tatum scored all 19 of his points after halftime to spark the Blue Devils in the second half, and Allen and Kennard combined for 45 points and nine triples, with Allen nailing seven of those himself.
After Berry missed a contested reverse layup following Jackson’s free throw that made it 81-77, Tatum added a pair of free throws himself to put the game out of reach. And against the team that leads the nation in rebounding margin, it was the St. Louis native that led all players with nine rebounds as Duke won the battle on the boards 31-30. He also added a career-high five assists.
North Carolina starting forward Isaiah Hicks missed the contest with a hamstring injury, but Allen, Kennard and Tatum played like the Blue Devils’ big three and Duke’s other players filled in the gaps in by far the team’s best performance of the season.
“It was an out-of-body experience,” Tatum said. “I didn’t really know what to expect. I just knew it was going to be great…. It was just a great game for the whole 40 minutes—nobody was giving in and it just took a lot of hard work and playing together.”
Much of that hard work included more of the lock-down defense that has powered the Blue Devils’ four-game winning streak—Duke (19-5, 7-4 in the ACC) held the Tar Heels to one field goal the final 7:30 of the game to preserve its ninth win in its last 12 games against North Carolina.
Following a Kennard jumper that gave the Blue Devils the lead for good with 6:31 remaining, the teams went scoreless for more than two minutes before Tatum nailed a right-wing triple to make it 75-71 Duke.
Despite picking up his fourth foul with 8:37 remaining, Allen then exploded for a dunk on the team’s next possession and splashed home a dagger 3-pointer from the left wing with 1:20 left to play after a deep Justin Jackson triple and Berry free throw brought North Carolina (21-5, 10-3) within two.
During the Blue Devils’ winning streak, Allen has looked like a different player with his outside shot and aggressiveness, and that trend continued Thursday from the opening tip. The Jacksonville, Fla., native tied a career-high with seven 3-pointers—none bigger than his last one.
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“Grayson was like a man among boys tonight,” Kennard said. “Playing with four fouls and coming back and making huge plays—it was great.”
Although Duke’s junior All-American fouled out on the ensuing possession and Berry cut it to three with a pair of free throws—one of the few times North Carolina converted from the line on a night when it went just 10-of-18 from the charity stripe—Jones, Frank Jackson and Tatum came up big down the stretch.
Tatum’s 3-pointer with 37 seconds left was a wide-open look, but careened off the left side of the rim for the kind of long rebound that so often fuels the Tar Heels’ fastbreak game. However, before Berry could get there, Jones snatched the ball away in the Desoto, Texas, native’s latest career-defining, glue-guy moment.
“It gave us a possession where—I thought Jayson’s three would go in, you know, [with] the crowd and everything, and then it didn’t,” Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Oh man, they’re going to get a [fast break]—and then Matt comes up with the ball. Big play. He’s one of those guys for four years—he’s just kind of an unsung terrific player for us.”
The latest rendition of the Tobacco Road rivalry was a back-and-forth affair from the start, with North Carolina punishing the Blue Devils inside to take an early 19-14 lead. But Duke responded with an 8-0 run in a minute to grab the lead right back in a period that saw 13 lead changes and neither team lead by more than five.
Frank Jackson was instrumental in the first of two Blue Devil 8-0 runs that happened in one-minute spans, knocking down a 3-pointer from the left corner and adding another mid-range jump shot. Although Jones and graduate student Amile Jefferson combined for just five points, Jackson finished with 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting to pick up some of the scoring slack.
As was the case with Allen, his last point was the biggest, giving the team a two-possession cushion to protect with a free throw in the final 30 seconds.
“I wish I made both of them, but I know the one was big and the other one was big too and [Jayson] hit some big free throws,” Jackson said. “We feed off our teammates’ energy and everyone brought it, including the [Cameron] Crazies. It was an electric environment and we all came together and had a great basketball game.”
After Jackson put Duke up 22-19, the teams went back and forth before the Blue Devils used another 8-0 run to take a 51-43 edge early in the second half. As was the case all night, the Tar Heels came right back with their transition attack to take a 64-59 lead with 11:15 remaining following a 15-3 run.
“We knew they weren’t going to lie down and back down. We knew they were going to come back because of how good they are,” Allen said. “We just had to make sure we didn’t back down either.”
An Allen 3-pointer and Tatum layup quickly tied it, and the teams traded blows the rest of the night before the frantic finish.
Following its most emotional win of the year to claw within one game in the loss column of first-place in the ACC standings, Duke is back in action Saturday afternoon against Clemson at home.
“To finally just be a part of it and get a win—I can’t explain how good it feels,” Tatum said.