CHAPEL HILL—Last season’s Tobacco Road Rivalry game in Chapel Hill came down to the final possession, with North Carolina’s Joel Berry II unable to get enough separation from Duke’s Derryck Thornton on the final possession as the Blue Devils completed an improbable upset.
This time around, the game once again looked destined to come down to the very end—but the Tar Heels pulled away in the waning minutes before any last-second heroics were necessary.
In the regular-season finale, No. 5 North Carolina used a 6-1 run late in the second half to defeat No. 17 Duke 90-83 Saturday night at the Dean E. Smith Center. After scoring 15 points in the team’s first meeting, Tar Heel guard Joel Berry II was unstoppable, pouring in a game-high 28 points on 5-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc, including a pair of critical buckets down the stretch to seal the win.
“Joel Berry was amazing,” Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He played really well the whole game…how well he played and shot the ball, but again, he’s capable of ‘amazing.’ There’s few players on the court who are capable of ‘amazing.’”
With the game knotted at 71—neither team led by more than seven the entire way—and just more than six minutes left, North Carolina (26-6, 14-4 in the ACC) embarked on a quick 6-0 run sparked by a 3-pointer from Justin Jackson and an old-fashioned three-point play from senior Isaiah Hicks to take the lead for good. Jackson had a rough shooting day, going just 1-of-7 from long range, but his first make could not have come at a better time for the Tar Heels.
Hicks did not play in the teams’ first meeting Feb. 9, but after outrebounding the Tar Heels in the 86-78 win, Duke (23-8, 11-7) was finally overpowered by Hicks and North Carolina’s overwhelming frontcourt size, allowing 15 second-chance points and 44 points in the paint.
The 6-foot-9 senior finished with 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting and nine rebounds on his Senior Night, and also helped limit Blue Devil freshman Jayson Tatum—who erupted for 19 second-half points against the Tar Heels Feb. 9—to just 4-of-13 shooting from the field.
“We are better when Isaiah is playing and playing well. Needless to say, if you’ve got 22 minutes played and scored 21 points and nine rebounds, he’s playing and playing well,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said. “He was big for us tonight. That area of the court was big for us tonight.”
The Blue Devils fought back quickly thanks to a pair of free throws from Luke Kennard and a 3-pointer from junior Grayson Allen that cut the North Carolina lead to 79-78. Kennard played another fabulous game, finishing with 28 points on 9-of-17 shooting to keep his team in it until the very end.
But Berry responded again with another timely bucket to stake the Tar Heels a three-point lead heading into the final media timeout with 3:28 remaining.
“Our problems are not offensively, to be honest. We have guys that other teams just can’t stop, no matter what,” graduate student Amile Jefferson said. “We have guys like that. We have to become a really good defensive team. Usually around this time, that’s what good Duke teams do—they rise up on defense.”
After Berry then drained another jumper to give North Carolina a four-point lead, Allen missed a pair from the free throw stripe—where he was 8-for-11 on the night—that put a major dent in Duke’s comeback chances.
Berry once again made the Blue Devils pay, weaving his way around the key and finishing for an easy layup when he caught Kennard napping.
Although the Blue Devils pulled within three with 25 seconds left when Kennard earned an and-one, a Justin Jackson layup and misses by Kennard and Jefferson sealed their fate.
“Maybe we didn’t execute in the right times, maybe we weren’t smart at times, but I think we played well,” Kennard said. “We gave up a couple transition points and took some shots that weren’t the best shots, including myself. With about three minutes left, it was a one-possession game, we just kind of let them get away.”
The first half set the tone for a fast-paced, back-and-forth affair, with both offenses clicking and neither team holding a lead of more than six points. Paced by 23 points from Allen and Kennard, Duke shot 54.2 percent from the field in the opening 20 minutes but North Carolina—led by a stellar 5-of-5 performance from deep by Berry—was not far behind at an even 50.0 percent.
The Tar Heels took the lead late in the period thanks to a 9-4 run in the final 3:09, with the Blue Devils’ 16-of-17 effort from the free throw line keeping them right in it despite Berry’s hot start.
“They shoot 35 free throws. When the other team shoot 14 more free throws than you do, that usually means you lose,” Williams said. “We were able to make some at the end when we got the lead…. They’re an awfully powerful offensive team.”
Duke went cold from the charity stripe at the worst possible time, though, and after watching its rival celebrate a second straight ACC regular-season title, the Blue Devils will now have to open the ACC tournament Wednesday afternoon as the No. 5 seed. Duke will play at 2 p.m. at the Barclays Center in New York against the winner of Tuesday’s game between Clemson and N.C. State.
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