CHAPEL HILL—R.J. Barrett stepped back at the top of the key, shaking a Tar Heel defender and canning a triple with 2:12 to play. It was the cherry on top of a 10-0 run, and it had the fans inside the Dean Dome wondering: Would the Blue Devils pull off another miraculous comeback?
This time, it wasn't to be.
No. 3 North Carolina polished off its season sweep of fourth-ranked Duke for the first time since 2009, edging out the Blue Devils 79-70 at the Dean E. Smith Center. Freshman guard Coby White came alive after halftime for the Tar Heels, logging 14 of his 21 points over the course of the final 20 minutes, to lead the hosts.
Although North Carolina went scoreless for nearly six minutes down the stretch to give Duke a chance to crawl back and potentially steal a win, Barrett came up empty on consecutive possessions in the final 94 seconds and the Blue Devils would never get closer than five.
“We’re not going to lose because we’re afraid or we’re going to back down or anything like that,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “If we lose, it’s because the other team played better, not that we didn’t play well. Tonight, they played better, but we played well.”
North Carolina—after trailing by a pair—came flying out of the break, using a 12-4 spurt in just more than three minutes to go up 50-44, forcing Duke to call timeout. Although Barrett answered with six straight points of his own, including a triple that got every part of the rim to tie things up at 50, the Tar Heels erupted for a 22-10 run to go up a dozen with 7:20 to play.
White was the engine for that outburst, scoring a dozen in the stretch, including a pair of triples along with an old-fashioned 3-point play as the Tar Heel faithful got as loud as any point all night.
“He’s big, and he can shoot, and he’s good. He’s talented. What else do you want to know?” Krzyzewski said of White. “He’s one of the best players in the league. He’s going to be an NBA player. He’s got all those things and he’s got the support—it’s cool when a freshman gets the support from the seniors.”
Yet again, Barrett provided the Blue Devils’ response, getting two consecutive layups through traffic to give Duke some life. But with the visitors down 11 and less than four minutes remaining, the eventual comeback bid was simply too little, too late.
“They had all the momentum and they were playing with extreme confidence, having a blast out there, and we were playing tight,” Tre Jones said. “We knew that we’d been in that position before. [Coach] just wanted us to continue to fight…. We ended up cutting it down to five, but we weren’t able to get there.”
It didn't take long for the injury bug to bite Duke once again. Less than three minutes into the game, Marques Bolden was whistled for a foul while trying to block a shot, but in the process, the junior crashed into the stanchion. The DeSoto, Texas native stayed down for a few minutes before being helped to the Blue Devil locker room—Bolden would come back out after halftime, limping on his own power, but was ruled out for the game before the start of the second half, with what Krzyzewski later termed as an MCL sprain.
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Unlike the last time Duke suffered an early injury against North Carolina, though, the Blue Devils gathered themselves to climb out of a quick 6-2 hole. The teams traded leads seven times in the first 20 minutes, with neither side going up by more than five.
Reddish carried the offensive load with 17 points before the break, canning a trio of 3-pointers to spark Duke's scoring—no other Blue Devil was able to get into double figures before heading to the locker room.
“I knew I had to be aggressive today,” Reddish said. “I was just in rhythm. I had a rhythm today and my teammates kept getting me the ball, hitting me in my spots and I was just able to knock them down.”
For the Tar Heels, Kenny Williams was juiced up on his Senior Night. The North Carolina guard scored a dozen in the opening period, but perhaps more importantly, drew a pair of charges on Barrett—the Duke freshman was whistled for his third with just less than two minutes to play in the opening half.
Although Barrett ultimately bounced back after intermission, scoring 17 of his team-high 26, the last few points his team so desperately needed just weren’t there.
“We just missed shots,” Reddish said. “The shots we normally make, we missed, and it’s time to move on.”
The Blue Devils can move on to the ACC tournament, as they’ll be the No. 3 seed and play their first game in Charlotte Thursday at 9:30 p.m. Duke will face either sixth-seeded Syracuse or the winner of Tuesday’s game between No. 11 seed Boston College and 14th-seeded Pittsburgh.