CHAPEL HILL—The last time Duke went into Chapel Hill, two buzzer-beaters led the Blue Devils to a miraculous comeback win.
But there would be no comeback this time around, as North Carolina held on to a commanding first-half lead to topple Duke 91-73 victory Saturday night in the Dean E. Smith Center. The Blue Devils' defeat marked their third loss in a row to close out the regular season, and they'll now need a miracle in next week’s ACC tournament to try and sneak into the NCAA tournament.
It was an all-around effort from the Tar Heels, with four different players scoring in double-digits. Kerwin Walton, Armando Bacot and Caleb Love each notched 18 points for the home team, while Garrison Brooks followed with 14 points of his own.
Freshmen Mark Williams and DJ Steward tallied 18 and 16 points, respectively, for Duke, but it wasn’t enough to make up for a Blue Devil offense that looked ugly all night en route to 15 turnovers, a 40.6% overall mark from the field and an 18.5% mark from three.
Sophomore forward Matthew Hurt totaled 14 points but on a mere 6-of-16 shooting from the floor and 2-of-10 from deep. The ACC Player of the Year candidate has struggled against the Tar Heels throughout his career, scoring no points in 15 minutes in two matchups last season and only seven points in the Blue Devils’ loss to North Carolina earlier this season.
"[North Carolina head coach Roy Williams] had his team really prepared. You know, it's senior night and their fans were great. And I didn't have my team prepared the way they did," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Coming off these two tough losses, I thought the things we did in practice were really good, but they didn't come into fruition. They didn't work out. So that's on me, because they really knocked us back."
Duke (11-11, 9-9 in the ACC) appeared to be generating some momentum in the middle of the second half, with graduate transfer Patrick Tape stealing a Tar Heel inbound pass and the Blue Devils eventually finding Hurt for a three to cut North Carolina’s edge to 54-40 with 13 minutes remaining.
Just under a minute later, a Jordan Goldwire steal seemed to be leading to a wide open breakaway layup, but Tar Heel junior Leaky Black swatted Goldwire's attempt out of bounds, firing up the limited capacity crowd of 3,200.
Then, after a few minutes of quiet back-and-forth scoring, five consecutive points from Brooks on a jumper and top-of-the-key three gave North Carolina (16-9, 10-6) its largest lead of the night at 66-42.
"We couldn't string together stops," Steward said. "We can't trade baskets on both ends of the floor. So we just got to get stops and fight. That's the main thing."
Brooks was one of four Tar Heel seniors honored prior to the start of the contest, with the 6-foot-10 forward undoubtedly the most accomplished of the quartet. And every time the Alabama native scored, the crowd responded, sending him off in style.
However, Brooks’ regular-season career nearly came to an end less than a minute into the game.
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On North Carolina’s first possession, Brooks swished an elbow jumper. However, the Preseason ACC Player of the Year landed on Hurt’s foot and rolled his ankle, promptly exiting the game and heading to the locker room. The sequence sparked memories of Zion Williamson and the infamous “shoe game” two years ago.
However, unlike Williamson in that contest, Brooks returned to the game for the Tar Heels, emerging from the locker room six minutes of game play later. The senior immediately checked back in and sunk another mid-range jumper from the opposite elbow to put North Carolina up 18-4.
Three minutes later, Brooks held the ball near the baseline in what looked to be a broken possession. But he quickly stepped back to create separation and sunk a corner three to put the home team ahead 24-6.
Steward did his best to keep Duke in the game, going on an 8-2 run by himself, including a four-point play. But North Carolina was relentless, following that up with a 12-2 run of its own, and went into halftime up 42-26. It was tied for the Blue Devils' lowest scoring half this season.
"They were just completely knocked back with the level of defense, the intensity that Roy's team came out with," Krzyzewski said of his team's struggles to begin the game. "And Roy's team played hard the whole way. But those first eight to 10 minutes, they were at a really high level. And it just knocked us back."
Duke will look to rebound Tuesday against Boston College in the first round of the ACC tournament. It'll mark the first time the Blue Devils are playing in the tournament's opening round since 2007.
"I need to help them more confidence-wise and just coaching-wise so that they they can turn this around," Krzyzewski said. "They have good attitudes. Our practices are good. They're good kids. But did we play well? No. Did I prepare them well? No. I didn't get it. I didn't help them enough. And that's my responsibility. I'm gonna try to do what I can to help them play well on Tuesday."