With none of his typical lineups having any success halting North Carolina’s second-half onslaught Thursday night, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski decided to go with a non-traditional look.
He inserted a massive lineup that featured 6-foot-11 Wendell Carter, 6-foot-11 Marques Bolden and 6-foot-10 Marvin Bagley all on the floor at once.
Not once during the next three-plus minutes did Duke find a way to exploit the mismatches created by that lineup. The Blue Devils hoisted 3-pointers on four straight possessions, got beat down the floor off long rebounds and somehow even surrendered a pair of offensive rebounds despite their absurd size advantage.
That brief second-half stretch reflects why 21st-ranked North Carolina was able to emerge with an 82-78 victory over ninth-ranked Duke despite having considerably less talent. The experienced Tar Heels played tougher, harder and smarter than the freshman-laden Blue Devils as they stormed back from a 12-point first-half deficit, built a 10-point second-half lead and then withstood a late Duke surge to claim victory in the 247th showdown between the Tobacco Road rivals.
Neither North Carolina (18-7, 7-5) nor Duke (19-5, 7-4) have any chance of catching first-place Virginia in the ACC title race, but that doesn’t diminish the significance of Thursday night’s outcome.
The Tar Heels reasserted themselves as a threat to return to the Final Four and boosted their chances of earning a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament. They’re nowhere near as dominant as the teams that played for the national title the past two seasons, but they’re still nationally relevant despite the loss of last year’s top three big men to graduation or the NBA draft.
The Blue Devils fell for the third time in four tries, raising questions whether college basketball’s preseason No. 1 team can fix its flaws in time for March. A lethal Duke offense gobbles up offensive rebounds and scores efficiently at the rim and from behind the arc, but the Blue Devils struggle defensively in either man-to-man or zone and typically lose focus for long stretches of games.
It’s especially concerning that Duke couldn’t muster a 40-minute effort days after Krzyzewski called out his team for its sluggish performance in a loss to St. John’s. North Carolina played hungry and desperate after falling behind by 12, and the Blue Devils never matched that.
The difference in effort was evident in North Carolina’s 17 offensive rebounds against a long, athletic Duke frontline that boasts three McDonald’s All-Americans and two future lottery picks. The Tar Heels struggled to finish inside against the Blue Devils’ array of shot blockers, but they made up for it by generating so many second-chance opportunities.
The difference in execution was apparent in Duke’s frequent defensive lapses. Time and time again, North Carolina beat the Blue Devils down the court in transition or took advantage of sloppy pick and roll defense to create an open shot.
Senior point guard Joel Berry scored 21 points, most of which came by attacking the basket off the bounce. Juniors Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams combined for 10 threes. Johnson, Luke Maye and Garrison Brooks were terrors on the offensive glass, and Theo Pinson impacted the game with his passing, defensive versatility and hustle.
There are lessons for both North Carolina and Duke to take from Thursday night’s game as they both look to close the regular season out strong.
The Tar Heels can draw on this victory as a reminder that they can defeat any team in the country if they duplicate the effort and intelligence they displayed in Thursday’s second half.
The Blue Devils should use this as a reminder that talent alone isn’t enough. They need to focus for a full 40 minutes, take greater care to exploit the mismatches they generate on offense and limit their defensive miscommunications if they want to live up to their potential.
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