North Carolina rides rebounding to ACC title-clinching win over Duke

Jeff Eisenberg
North Carolina's Brice Johnson (11) reacts following North Carolina's 76-72 win over Duke in an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, March 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
North Carolina's Brice Johnson (11) reacts following North Carolina's 76-72 win over Duke in an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, March 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Seldom has one possession better typified a game than a sequence that came midway through the second half of North Carolina's 76-72 victory at Duke on Saturday night.

Five times the Tar Heels hoisted up shots. Five times they missed. Five times they managed to secure the offensive rebound.

A masterpiece, North Carolina's win was not, but the Tar Heels still emerged with the outcome they wanted. They won at Cameron Indoor for the first time in four years, avenging last month's frustrating home loss to Duke and clinching the outright ACC title.

North Carolina won despite shooting 35.6 percent from the field, committing more than twice as many turnovers as Duke and missing 19 of 23 3-pointers. The Tar Heels overcame all that by out-rebounding the Blue Devils by an absurd 64-29 margin.

Brice Johnson had 21 rebounds by himself and his 12 offensive boards were more than the eight that Duke managed as a team. Center Kennedy Meeks, forward Justin Jackson and guard Theo Pinson combined for 11 offensive rebounds themselves.

North Carolina's dominance on the glass was possible because the bigger, stronger, deeper Tar Heels sent two or three guys to the boards on ever possession. It also helped that Marshall Plumlee is the lone true big man on the floor for Duke at all times and that the Blue Devils played zone for most of the game to guard against foul trouble and force North Carolina to beat them from the perimeter.

That North Carolina could out-rebound Duke so convincingly yet still fail to put the game away early is a concern. Saturday's game followed a similar script as the previous one between the two teams — the Tar Heels leading but not by as big a margin as it seemed like they should — only this time they  managed to close it out.

The key sequence came with just over four minutes remaining when Joel Berry sank a critical 3-pointer to put North Carolina ahead by seven. A Justin Jackson dunk and a driving layup by Berry extended the lead to nine with 3:12 left, drawing a timeout from Mike Krzyzewski and giving the Tar Heels the margin they needed to escape Durham with a rare victory.

North Carolina earned the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament and won the league title outright thanks to a loss by Miami earlier in the day. The Tar Heels will almost certainly nab a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament if they win the ACC tournament and they would still be in the running even with semifinal or title game loss.

But NCAA tournament seeding wasn't what was on North Carolina's minds Saturday. This win was more about avenging a previous loss to Duke and proving it was tough enough to hold off another late Blue Devils charge.

The Tar Heels accomplished those goals, even if a work of art it was not.

- - - - - - -

Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!