A Blue Devil team that became unstoppable down the stretch in close games from November through January looked dormant for the last several weeks.
But Saturday night, "Zombie Duke" showed it was not dead for good on the biggest of regular-season stages.
No. 5 Duke rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit to top ninth-ranked North Carolina 74-64 in its regular-season finale on Senior Night at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It was the fourth time this season the Blue Devils trailed by at least 13 after the break before coming back to win, with Marvin Bagley III scoring 21 points and grabbing 15 rebounds to lead the way.
"We came out so anxious for this game, me included. I think we were too excited, just a little bit too frantic, too fast, too quick on everything we were doing,” senior captain Grayson Allen said. “In the second half, we played with no fear. We played like we had 100 games left, with free money, with confidence. We just went out there and hooped.”
The Blue Devils (25-6, 13-5 in the ACC) started chipping away a few minutes into the second half, but a 3-pointer and a 3-point play from Bagley on back-to-back possessions trimmed the deficit to just one at 50-49 with 10 minutes to go. Gary Trent Jr. then put Duke in front for the first time of the half with a triple from the top of the key to make Cameron as loud as it has been all season and cap an extended 23-8 run in a seven-minute span.
The teams traded leads on 3-pointers four times in the next three minutes, but a banked runner by Trevon Duval and another triple from Trent sparked a 10-2 run that gave Duke the lead for good. The Blue Devils made eight straight shots from the field from the 8:30 mark to the 1:04 mark of the game after they did not make a single field goal in the last seven minutes of Monday's loss at Virginia Tech.
“Literally, Coach just said, ‘Play basketball.’ He didn’t really have any X’s and O’s or any specific plays for us to run,” Duval said. “Just play normal basketball like we were playing pickup, and that’s what we did.”
Allen struggled to run the offense in his final home game, turning the ball over a career-high six times and shooting just 5-of-14 from the field. North Carolina guard Joel Berry II pressured him on almost every possession and never let Duke's offense find a rhythm, but Duval took over ball-handling duties for the decisive second-half run.
Duval came off the bench for the second straight game, but he played most of the second half and dished out six assists without committing a turnover.
An alley-oop from Duval to Bagley with less than a minute and a half left sealed the deal.
“In a game like this, Grayson got worn out because of the emotion of the night. It’s his last game, and taking him off the ball there for a while in the second half, we were able to run better offense,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We’re trying to condense four years in one here, but Trevon was huge for us.”
The last eight minutes of the first half were disastrous for the Blue Devils, as they missed seven straight shots from the field and went scoreless for more than four minutes while North Carolina (22-9, 11-7) turned a four-point deficit into a nine-point lead with an 18-5 run.
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Allen finally ended the dry spell with a jumper with a minute left, but Tar Heel guard Kenny Williams drilled a corner 3-pointer in the closing seconds to give North Carolina its first double-digit lead.
The Tar Heels could have been ahead by even more, but never found a spark on offense and had trouble attacking the rim. North Carolina attempted 31 3-pointers, only making eight of them, and attempted just five free throws.
Duke has now held seven straight opponents to fewer than 70 points and is ranked 10th in KenPom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency metric.
“Remember when you all said we couldn’t play defense but we could play offense? Now you’re saying we can play defense and we can’t play offense,” Krzyzewski said. “If you take out the first three conference games, we’ve played as well as anybody on the defensive end in the conference.”
Duke suffered through a miserable showing at the line to start the game, going 4-of-14 before the break. Nobody was immune to the cold spell, as Allen—an 86.0 percent free throw shooter—shot 1-of-3 and missed the front end of a one-and-one in the first 20 minutes.
“In spite of 4-for-14 from the free throw line and really not running offense, we were only down by 10 because our defense overall was pretty good,” Krzyzewski said. “At halftime, I just spent a good amount of time with them. I just said, ‘Look, take the pianos off your back, quit playing with all the pressure in the world, get a smile on your face, just play.’”
The Blue Devils will return to action Thursday night as the No. 2 seed in the ACC tournament in New York. They will take on the winner of Wednesday's second-round matchup between Virginia Tech and either Notre Dame or Pittsburgh.