UNC's defense won this game.
While Roy Williams' North Carolina teams have been known for a decade-plus as great on offense, the calling card for this version of the Tar Heels might be the defense. UNC held the #1 team in KenPom's ratings to 66 points, 42% shooting from the floor and 22% shooting from three. A Duke team that entered the game with an adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 126.3 was held to 96.0 by a Tar Heels defense that did a great job guarding the perimeter. In fact, UNC was a little too good on the perimeter and not strong enough on the interior in the first half. Duke scored 26 of its 37 points in the paint and made just two threes. Meanwhile the Tar Heels were turnover prone committing nine miscues and once again Marcus Paige was a non-factor prior to halftime and scoreless on 0-2 shooting.
In fact no one was really clicking except for Leslie McDonald. Over the past few games, McDonald has really struggled to find his shot and contribute offensively. Clearly the prospect of facing Duke one last time in the Dean Dome lit a fire under the fifth year senior. McDonald opened the game with a made three and led UNC at the half with 11 points. He was also effective on the defensive end holding Rasheed Sulaimon in check. Were it not for Leslie, UNC would have been facing something much bigger than a seven point deficit at intermission.
The second half didn't necessarily start out well for the Tar Heels. UNC had some trouble during the early poritions of the half getting stops and if they did they failed to secure the defensive rebound. The Blue Devil lead ballooned to 11 with 15:07 left in the game. Then the defense literally took over. Duke failed to score a FG over the next nine minutes of game time while the Tar Heels slowly chipped away at the lead. Part of UNC's defensive effort included using the 3-2 zone and even a 1-3-1 look that gave the Blue Devils trouble and took them out of rhythm offensively. With Duke slowed down on defense the Tar Heels got contributions from everyone including Desmond Hubert who absolutely played his heart out in his own endearing awkward way.
Despite holding Duke in check on the defensive end, UNC had its own offensive troubles and endured multiple empty possessions after getting the Duke lead down to 53-49. With 5:30 left Paige hit a three to draw UNC to within one and was answered by Quinn Cook on a three that hit the front of the rim then climb up and in. UNC responded by going on an 8-0 with McAdoo tying the game on a dunk off a McDonald pass then McDonald putting UNC ahead for good with a layup. After Duke closed to within two, Paige hit a spectacular shot at the rim to make the game two possessions. The Tar Heels closed the game with solid free throw shooting including 4-4 from Nate Britt and a pair from Marcus Paige for the first win over Duke since the 2012 season.
McDonald led the Heels with 21 points in probably the best game of his career given the nature of the contest. Paige scored all 13 of his points in the second half and McAdoo posted a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Much like Monday night, this team continues to surprise in their ability to overcome poor first half performances and various forms of adversity. In this case UNC's mistakes in the first half, many of them unforced, coupled with foul trouble for Brice Johnson and two on James Michael McAdoo forced the Tar Heels to rely on patchwork lineups that included Jackson Simmons guarding Duke's Jabari Parker at one point. Kennedy Meeks again struggled with opposing big men and saw his playing time limited as a result. The offense was disjointed, except for McDonald and there was a point early in the second half where it felt like the game could slip away.
Once again this team which had a reputation of not bringing enough effort, intensity or energy early in the season has now become the team that stares adversity in the face and overcomes it. Somewhere in the past eight games, these players bought in to what Roy Williams was preaching and look every bit validated in their early wins over ranked teams back in November and December.There is no way of knowing how far this team can go but at the very least it has been fun watching them turn the season around.