It has been a nagging issue with this team for as long as this senior class has been on the team. The missed chances in 2015 including a loss at Duke and the first game versus these same Blue Devils followed a similar pattern. This game seemed destined for yet another gut wrenching slip but for completely different reasons. The story from the first game was failing to get the ball inside to the dominant Tar Heel big men. Settling for jump shots and those shots not falling set the Tar Heels up for a devastating collapse.
This time the misses on the perimeter were again an issue but unlike the first game, UNC didn't get out of character on offense with the number of jumpers taken. With Duke in a zone, UNC entered the ball into the high post hoping to get Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks or Isaiah Hicks going from there or capitalize off rebounds. And for the most part that seemed to work. UNC got plenty of shots in the paint but was bizarrely short on them or they just wouldn't go down. The result was missing a chance to extend the lead and perhaps bury Duke early in the second half.
What could have been a double digit margin against a team with tired legs ended up a tied game at 49-49 as the half reached it's midway point. Given the recent history, UNC's confidence was undoubtedly on the edge of a knife and the fan base a blubbering mess of nerves. Yet UNC responded with four straight points to get the lead back then survived with the Blue Devils lurking just one possession out over the next almost four minutes of game time.
Then it happened, that clear cut flex of strength to seize control of the game which has often been missing. With UNC up just 57-55, Brice Johnson made back-to-back baskets to extend the lead to six. After a pair of Luke Kennard free throws cut the margin to four, Joel Berry nailed one of those "No, no, no, YES!" three pointers. Given how UNC's shooting had been, it may not have been a good shot but the result was sublime all the same. On the next UNC possession following a Duke basket, Jackson cut baseline and Kennedy Meeks found him. The sophomore, who has a penchant for floaters and layups, left no doubt with a dunk. Berry capped off the 11-4 spurt taking the ball the length of the court off a rebound to give UNC a nine point lead with 3:22 left.
It wasn't over, not by a long shot. Duke made one last push thanks to a trio of threes from Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard. For UNC it became a question of hitting free throws and the Tar Heels were up to the task going 8-8 over the final 26 seconds. Theo Pinson hit a pair followed by Joel Berry to keep UNC's lead at two possessions. Then it was up to Marcus Paige. The senior guard's mysterious shooting woes continued with a 1-8 night from behind the arc. At the line Paige was clutch hitting a pair of free throws twice in the final ten seconds when the lead was just two.
In an ideal world, UNC hits shots on the offensive end and makes this game a snoozer by the second media timeout as they did versus Miami. It didn't work out that way with the poor shooting taking a life of its own. On one possession UNC had five offensive rebounds but came away with zero point. It was the stuff of nightmares for a team often victim to falling apart in game of this nature. This time was difference and when the stakes as high as they've been all season, UNC found a way.
It wasn't pretty but a win, especially one that brings an ACC Regular Season Championship, is still a win.