CHAPEL HILL—It all seemed too easy.
For most of the first half, Duke owned the sharp hickory and baby blue floor to the point that it probably should have been painted Duke blue. Against the best rebounding team in the country, the Blue Devils secured almost every board and point in the paint. The result: they were in position to put the game away before the half.
And just as quickly as they jumped ahead, their stranglehold on the game vanished.
No. 9 Duke fell apart against No. 21 North Carolina at the Dean E. Smith Center, letting a 40-28 lead ooze away from its grasp to fall 82-78. The Tar Heels made the Blue Devil defense look malleable, turning the ball over just twice and owning the hardwood beyond the arc. Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams combined to shoot 10-of-20 from long range, slamming the door on the Blue Devils’ fingers.
After cutting a double-digit lead in half at the end of the first half, North Carolina went on a 23-8 run to start the second half that electrified Tar Heel fans and put Duke on its heels, down as many as 10. After getting trounced on the boards in the early going, Carolina righted the ship during the run and sailed on to win the rebounding battle behind an astonishing 15 second-half offensive rebounds. Duke had 11—total.
“It’s these runs. It seems like every game we’ve played, they happen,” senior captain Grayson Allen said. “I haven’t seen a game this year where a team hasn’t gone on a run for stretch. It doesn’t matter if it’s three minutes or 10 minutes, it happens every single game. I don’t know what it is, but we can’t lose our focus.”
After starting out passably, the Blue Devil defense vanished. It never was able to upset Carolina’s rhythm, forcing just two giveaways, which tied a program record that the Tar Heels set against a team in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
The Tar Heels (18-7, 7-5 in the ACC) weren’t hot from the floor, but cleaned up their own misses and picked up 12 second-chance points to begin to run away. In addition to Luke Maye’s near double-double, Johnson, a 6-foot-8 guard, racked up 13 rebounds.
“We knew that coming in. That’s what they do, even their perimeter guys,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “They rebound well. The initial defense was actually pretty good, and you give second chances, that means you’re on defense for a long time.”
Duke (19-5, 7-4) was able to cut the lead late to make it 74-71 and make things interesting, as North Carolina finished the game an ice-cold 12-of-40 from the field. But Gary Trent Jr., Trevon Duval and Alex O'Connell all missed 3-point attempts that could have catalyzed the run, and Johnson ended the Tar Heels' cold spell with a 3-pointer from the wing with 3:10 left in the game after Duval fouled out.
Joel Berry II made two free throws on North Carolina's next possession, and the Blue Devils were never within one possession again.
Marvin Bagley III had a big performance with 15 points and 16 boards, but had to work incredibly hard with veteran guard Theo Pinson fronting him on defense, and couldn't quite do enough to push his team over the top. After owning the paint in the early going, Bagley and Duke did not attempt a 2-point field goal for a nearly 10-minute span in the second half, when North Carolina continued to push past the Blue Devils.
Allen said that Duke tried to feed Bagley and Carter in the post, like it did so successfully in the first half, but to no avail.
“We tried to keep going to it, but they did a good job of fronting the post and limiting angles to get the ball in,” Allen said. “They were really good at playing in front of our guys down there, so we tried to do some different actions to get them the ball. When we got them the ball, we were very successful, but when we took tough contested twos, we weren’t.”
Duke had come out firing on all cylinders, but so did the Tar Heels—from deep. The Blue Devils owned the paint on both sides of the floor, but had trouble stopping Williams. The junior guard nailed four first-half 3-pointers while Johnson also lit it up from beyond the arc, adding 13 points before the break.
After controlling play at the outset, the Blue Devils ceded a 21-19 lead to North Carolina. But they exploded from there, going on a 21-7 run in which they simply couldn’t miss. Duke made 10 straight from the floor, including six points from backup center Marques Bolden.
But the Blue Devils couldn’t pull away, letting North Carolina go on a 17-9 run to close the half and bring it within striking distance.
Duke will look to bounce back Sunday afternoon in Atlanta against Georgia Tech.
“When adversity hits, we can’t go our separate ways and try to do things ourselves,” Bagley said. “We have to come together and figure something out. It’s a learning experience for us. It hurts to lose to this team.”
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Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor
A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks.