CHAPEL HILL—Down 13 with under four minutes left in regulation, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his squad faced the prospect of being on the receiving end of an embarrassing loss to a severely under-powered conference rival. Krzyzewski needed to pull a rabbit out of a hat to save the evening.
Good thing he found a couple of small forwards.
With Vernon Carey Jr. sitting on the bench with five fouls and Matthew Hurt having a cold night from the field, Krzyzewski opted to forego a big man entirely, opting to run a lineup of Tre Jones, Jordan Goldwire, Wendell Moore Jr., Alex O'Connell and Joey Baker. And with the Blue Devils running a lineup that allowed for decent shooting and high-energy defense, Duke was able to mount a comeback that will forever be etched in the annals of the great Tobacco Road rivalry.
"I mean what else are we going to do," Krzyzewski said. "I’m going to try everything. We just tried it and Alex hit some big shots, Joey had one. Our perimeter was tough. At halftime we got on our perimeter because we felt their perimeter was beating us. And even the first eight minutes of the second half.... They were beating us with not just their key guys….and then our perimeter just stepped up and this happened."
With 3:40 left on the clock, the Blue Devils used North Carolina's high-paced transition offense against the Tar Heels, forcing the home team into quick contested shots and retrieving possessions through fouling. After a Garrison Brooks miss at the charity stripe, his fifth of the night, the Blue Devils stormed back down Roy Williams Court for an in-rhythm three to put Duke within striking distance.
Just a few minutes later, O'Connell put his mark on the run. With North Carolina's Cole Anthony still reeling from a missed off-balance fadeaway, Jones ripped the ball in the air and broke into a dead sprint to the top of the key. With Anthony still backpedaling, the Apple Valley, Minn., native bounced a gorgeous pass back for a trailing O'Connell, who drained another trey to make it a two-possession game with 1:45 remaining.
"I didn’t go in the first half, but I made sure I stayed ready," O'Connell, who didn't play at all in the first half, said. "Being ready the whole game allowed me to step into those shots and knock them down.... We had a lot of athletic guys in there so I think the speed definitely shook them up a little bit. We were able to build off of that and complete an incredible game."
Of course, Jones' late game heroics was what saved the evening for Duke. If there ever was a night to showcase why the young point guard is a National Player of the Year candidate, this was it. But the Blue Devils' decision to go small in stark contrast to North Carolina's lumbering bigs certainly paved the way for an unforgettable finish.
Defensively, Duke's late-game lineup perfectly countered a Tar Heel rotation worn down by an evening of dead sprints. With Jones and Goldwire constantly doubling Anthony, North Carolina had to find other options for offense. But Moore managed to keep a hot shooting Andrew Platek in check with his length, and O'Connell's speed allowed him to switch on all levels to force high-pressure passes, effectively disrupting a Tar Heel offense that had spent most of the evening abusing Duke.
With sharpshooters on the wing and a hustling inside-outside presence in Moore, the Blue Devils had all the spacing they needed to open the lane up for Jones to go to work. Duke's game plan allowed for the sophomore point guard to drop 15 points in the final minutes of regulation and into overtime, finally using the shooting gravity of Baker and O'Connell in conjunction.
"All five guys could handle and make plays and guard different positions," Baker said. "It caused some chaos on both ends of the floor. That lineup hasn't been on the floor at all this year so [North Carolina] didn't know what to do with it, so we took advantage."
For Duke, Saturday's win is more than just a legendary finish in one of the most storied rivalries in sports. Duke has the depth to match up with anyone, and tonight proved that the Blue Devils have what it takes to win no matter the odds.
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"We stuck together," Baker said. "There were a lot of points in the game where we could've fallen apart and laid down, but we kept fighting no matter what. Tre led us and we followed his lead. It was a special night.... I just wanted to win."