North Carolina entered Cameron seeking their first regular season sweep of the Blue Devils since 2009. They also knew a victory would give UNC the #2 seed in next week’s ACC Tournament and the inside track to a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
As has become a familiar refrain, they left with a split on the regular season.
Duke opened the scoring with a Wendell Carter Jr. lay-up, and made no attempt to disguise they wanted to get the ball inside early and often. UNC was ready for the challenge, holding Carter, Marques Bolden, and Marvin Bagley to 3 of 9 shooting in the first 20 minutes. Not to be outdone, Gary Trent Jr. and Grayson Allen were 5-17 (0-5 from three) as the Heels forced the two perimeter players to make plays inside the arc.
On offense, the Heels were temporarily flummoxed by Duke’s recent infatuation with a 2-3 zone, but slowly chipped away with an array of lay-ups, dunks, jumpers, and three-pointers. Cameron Johnson led the way with 10 points and 4 rebounds, and Kenny Williams continued his stellar performance from the first game with 8 points and 6 rebounds at the break.
The first half saw 6 lead changes from the opening tip before UNC extended their lead to 35-25 in the closing minutes of the first half.
When the team’s returned for the second half, most UNC fans were likely nervously pessimistic. A Duke run was inevitable. It is always inevitable. Tonight was no different.
Despite pushing the lead to 13 points early in the second half, the Heels couldn’t capitalize and Duke slowly chipped away. With 14:01 remaining, Berry was charged with his third foul and went to the bench with UNC clinging to a 44-35 lead. The Blue Devils used the next few minutes laying the foundation for a run, cutting the lead to 3 before the Heels pushed it back to 8 when Berry reentered the game.
It wasn’t enough as a Gary Trent three finally gave the Devils a 52-20 lead, with 9:30 left. That three seemingly opened the floodgates from deep.
After trading the lead on multiple possessions thanks to key threes from Johnson and Williams, Duke eventually took a 65-60 lead with just over 4 minutes to play. After going 1-10 from three in the first half they hit 8 of 15 in the second half. Duke found their stroke and rode the inside game of Bagley (21 points, 15 rebounds)and the outside shooting of Trent (13 points) and Allen (15 points).
It was a similar story on the other end of the court. For as impressive as UNC was in the first half, they were equally as frustrating in the second half. A mixture of missed shots and quick possessions were ultimately their undoing. They continued to attack the middle of the Duke zone, but Maye, Pinson, and Johnson missed numerous seemingly uncontested mid-range jump shots. After going 4-8 from three in the first half, Johnson and Williams were a combined 3-12 in the second.
Those rushed possessions led to a 46-42 rebounding advantage for Duke. The Heels also only attempted 5 free throws on the evening - a result of settling for jump shots and Duke’s front line challenging everything at the rim. The Blue Devils finished with 8 blocks.
Cam Johnson led North Carolina with 16 points.
Kenny Williams pitched in 13 and 8 rebounds and Theo Pinson contributed 12 and 8. Luke Maye finished his pending All-ACC campaign with 13 and 7.
Joel Berry II, in his final regular season game, only managed 6 points and 2 rebounds to go along with 5 assists (4 in the first half).
North Carolina will look to regroup and pick up some key wins in next week’s ACC Tournament. Their next game is on Wednesday against Syracuse or Wake Forest.