With a chance to complete the regular-season sweep against its Tobacco Road rival, No. 17 Duke came up just short Saturday, falling 90-83 at No. 5 North Carolina. Although five different Blue Devils scored in double figures, the Blue Devils were unable to win and earn a double bye in the ACC tournament, meaning they will play Wednesday against either No. 12 Clemson or No. 13 N.C. State.
Revisiting the three keys to the game:
- Limit the Heels in the paint: After Duke won the rebounding battle by a 31-30 margin in the teams' first matchup, many expected it to be a different outcome with North Carolina senior forward Isaiah Hicks back on the floor—he missed the Feb. 9 contest with a hamstring strain. Indeed, Hicks was crucial, as he led the Tar Heels with 9 rebounds as they outpaced the Blue Devils 35-31 on the glass and collected a dozen offensive boards. North Carolina controlled the game down low with 44 points in the paint and 15 second-chance points, capitalizing even when unable able to knock down shots from distance.
- Get the scorers going early: In a game with plenty of offense, Duke had no problem pouring in the points early on. Luke Kennard—who finished the game with 28 points—racked up 13 before halftime, including a two-minute stretch midway through the first half when the sophomore scored eight during an 10-4 Blue Devil run. Despite slower starts from freshmen Frank Jackson and Jayson Tatum, it was the wily veteran Amile Jefferson who helped Duke get going. The Philadelphia native had eight of the Blue Devils' first 10 points and proved to be a strong foil for Tar Heel big man Kennedy Meeks on his Senior Night in Chapel Hill.
- Stay cool on the road: Despite not being able to come away with the victory, it was another positive Duke performance away from Cameron Indoor Stadium. After starting ACC play 0-3 away from Durham, the Blue Devils showed toughness on the road with a trio of consecutive wins at Wake Forest, Notre Dame and then Virginia. But with three more losses—all in a row—to close their road slate in ACC play, Duke will need to find a way to win away from home. The Blue Devils will have a slight edge in terms of fan support when they head to New York for the conference tournament next week, and just eight turnovers against North Carolina is certainly a positive jumping-off point. If Duke wants to bring a trophy or two back to Durham this season, however, it will need to string some defensive stops and victories together away from its home court.
Three key stats:
- The Blue Devils miss six second-half free throws: With Duke earning 17 trips to the free throw line in the first half and missing just once, it appeared that the charity stripe would be the Blue Devils' friend Saturday night. Down the stretch, though, it was Duke's downfall as it shot just 12-of-18 from the line in the final 20 minutes despite getting into the bonus at the 8:49 mark of the second half. Tatum and Allen missed four crucial free throws in the final 3:28 and the Blue Devils missed on seven free throws for the game—which could have been just enough to send the game to overtime.
- Duke tallies just eight assists: The Blue Devils just barely won the assist battle—against Tar Heel forward Theo Pinson, that is. Pinson finished the game with seven helpers of his own whereas Duke struggled to make the crucial passes. Instead, the Blue Devils frequently opted for isolation offense and found themselves forcing up tough contested shots. North Carolina, on the other hand, registered 19 assists on 34 made buckets—led by Pinson and four dimes from junior Justin Jackson.
- 14 points in 23 minutes for Grayson Allen: As the junior guard still struggles with the ankle injury that kept him out of last Saturday's game at Miami and limited him Tuesday against Florida State, Allen had a considerable impact in a short period of time. The Jacksonville, Fla., native posted 10 points before intermission and made his hay at the charity stripe with eight first-half makes. Although Allen's misses from the line were key late, his two triples came at big moments and the experienced guard will have to play a major role if Duke hopes to make a lengthy postseason run.
Three key plays:
- 4:59 remaining, first half: Allen's first successful 3-pointer of the night could not have come at a better time. With the scoring bouncing back and forth between the two sides, the junior followed a Tatum triple with one of his own 47 seconds later to stretch the Blue Devil lead to six—as large as it would get at any point. As Allen fired from the left wing, a Justin Jackson foul sent the All-ACC guard to the floor, and the Blue Devil junior made him pay, hitting the ensuing free throw that allowed Duke to seize momentum.
- 5:22 remaining, second half: After a thunderous Tatum slam tied the game at 69 apiece and silenced the Carolina faithful, the Tar Heels began the run that would give them a solid cushion and put the Blue Devils in the rearview mirror for good. And with Isaiah Hicks' and-one layup through traffic, North Carolina stretched its lead to six at 77-71 as the senior knocked down his free throw.
- 1:40 remaining, second half: Missed free throws were just some of the mistakes that prevented Duke from earning another win against the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill. After Allen failed to convert on a pair with just more than two minutes to play, Hicks collected the board and on its next possession, Joel Berry II coolly banked in a layup to bring the North Carolina lead back to six after the Blue Devils had their chance to cut it to two.
And the Duke game ball goes to.... Luke Kennard
On many occasions, Kennard has been the Blue Devils' silent assassin, finding ways to put up big numbers even if he does not make any flashy plays or dominate the game. But Saturday, the Franklin, Ohio, native stole the show and had one of his better performances just hours after being named a Wooden Award finalist.
The sophomore guard racked up 28 points on 9-of-17 shooting and added five rebounds to help Duke hang with a much taller Tar Heel side. Although Kennard could not get a late triple to fall too bring the Blue Devils within striking distance, he was steady in 39 minutes of play and even added a block and a steal on the defensive end.
And the North Carolina game ball goes to.... Joel Berry II
It was Senior Night in Chapel Hill Saturday, yet the Tar Heels leaned heavily on their junior point guard for offense. Berry matched Kennard with 28 points of his own as he nailed all five of his 3-point attempts—all of which came in the first half as the Apopka, Fla., native staked his team to a two-point halftime advantage. Berry was also crucial in the closing moments as he kissed a sweet layup off the glass with less than two minutes to play that put North Carolina up 85-79, and the 6-foot guard did not turn the ball over once.
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