CHAPEL HILL—Scorers come in threes on championship basketball teams—think of the Boston Celtics' Big Three a decade ago, or the trio led by LeBron James that carried the Miami Heat to back-to-back NBA titles in 2012 and 2013.
Duke signed the top three recruits in the nation to create its own big three this season, but without the most critical piece of that group for the last six games, the Blue Devils have only had two dependable scorers.
That's not enough to beat elite competition like North Carolina.
In both games against the Tar Heels this season, without star forward Zion Williamson for all but one play in the teams' first matchup, freshmen R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish have been Duke's only players to reach double figures in scoring. The duo combined for 49 of the Blue Devils' 70 points Saturday after contributing 60 of the team's 72 less than three weeks ago in Durham. Reddish's two performances against North Carolina have been his only 20-point games in Duke's last seven contests, but neither effort could carry the Blue Devils to a win against their biggest rival.
"If he can keep that [up] when Zion comes back, then we have three guys who can really score the ball and play off. When Cam was not playing as well, we had one, and today we had two," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "That’s just the way our team makeup is, but when the three of those guys are together, then they play off one another better, and then the other guys aren’t asked to make as many plays."
"The other guys" include Tre Jones, Marques Bolden, Jack White, Alex O'Connell and Javin DeLaurier. Jones had an adequate offensive game Saturday with nine points, but he's not a good enough shooter to be able to take over a game offensively like Tar Heel point guard Coby White did for his team.
Bolden never got the chance to show what he could do, injuring his knee less than three minutes into the game. DeLaurier filled in admirably in his absence with eight points, but wasn't much of an offensive factor in the second half when North Carolina was making its decisive run.
"They did a good job of just playing solid defense," DeLaurier said. "Credit to them, but we just had a lot of empty possessions. We missed a lot of shots. It was just one of those days."
O'Connell and White, two players that have shown an ability to be offensive sparkplugs as shooters at different points this year, didn't deliver on that front either. They combined to miss all six 3-pointers they attempted. And although freshman Joey Baker could also be a scoring option off the bench, Krzyzewski has been hesitant to use him since burning his redshirt at Syracuse two weeks ago, and Baker hasn't played at all in the last two games.
When the Tar Heels won 88-72 in Durham, Duke didn't do anything particularly well, but this time, defense wasn't the problem. Holding North Carolina under 80 points and without a made field goal in the last 6:47 of a fast-paced game with 77 possessions could have easily been good enough to win.
The Blue Devils simply didn't have enough firepower without Williamson to take advantage.
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Duke went on a late 10-0 run over a span of more than five minutes to give itself a chance after North Carolina took a commanding 15-point lead, but the slow run featured plenty of missed opportunities to get closer to completing another stunning comeback. The Blue Devils had the ball twice trailing by just five in the final two minutes, but Barrett was blocked both times with a chance to cut the deficit to one possession, and the comeback stalled. Together, Barrett and Reddish needed to take 50 shots to score their 49 points.
"When you play a certain way all year and then you have to adjust when your main player goes out, it’s different, so we’re trying to grow and learn," Barrett said. "It’s frustrating because we know how good we are when we’re all together."
The difference on the other side of the court was clear. Tar Heel senior Luke Maye scored 30 points in the teams' first matchup, but wasn't even one of North Carolina's four players in double figures in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels have plenty of options who can get hot on any given night.
Meanwhile, Barrett was one of Duke's top three scorers in all 31 games of the regular season and has been its leading scorer in each of the last six contests. The Canadian has had no choice but to take over games himself without many threats around him, but the heavy dependence on the freshman for the last three weeks hasn't been a winning formula.
"We’re good," Barrett said. "We’re going to be good, we’ve just got to get back in the lab and continue to work."