CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – In the end, a despondent Brice Johnson collapsed to the floor of the Dean E. Smith Center, the gut-wrenching reality crashing down before him. As North Carolina’s lanky forward rested on the historic hardwood, his arms propped atop his knees, a mosh pit of Duke players celebrated just a few feet away. When a Tar Heel teammate approached Johnson to help lift him to his feet, the senior remained on the ground. He needed time for reality to set in.
A packed house of 21,750 shell-shocked North Carolina fans could empathize with Johnson’s sudden bout with gravity. They’d watched Duke downright steal a 74–73 victory from the Tar Heels on the home floor, instantly deflating what had been a raucous home atmosphere in the Dean Dome. It didn’t matter that North Carolina had controlled the ACC matchup for the vast majority of the night. The Blue Devils needed only a few moments to engineer some Tobacco Road magic.
“That’s a heck of a basketball game if you are a Duke fan, or if you don’t really care who won,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said, “but I don’t fit in that category.”
Duke now leaves Chapel Hill on an unexpected roll. North Carolina, meanwhile, desperately needs soul-searching after Wednesday’s loss. The fifth-ranked Tar Heels, once the preseason No. 1 team in the country, have now lost three of their last five games. One of their two wins during that stretch was a come-from-behind victory over Boston College, one of the worst teams in the ACC. North Carolina looked the part of a Final Four contender for 38 of 40 minutes against Duke. But Roy’s Boys are beginning to reel as the calendar turns from February to March.
Against Duke, Johnson and the Tar Heels were a dominant force in the first half, jumping to a 46-42 lead at the break. One of the ACC’s best rebounding rosters lived up to its billing, outrebounding the Blue Devils 24-15 with a whopping 10 offensive boards before halftime. North Carolina’s post presence was so imposing that Johnson notched a double-double by the 4:38 mark of the first half. Meanwhile Duke’s frontcourt, severely limited by the absence of injured forward Amile Jefferson, had no answer for Johnson and fellow forward Kennedy Meeks in the post.
But North Carolina’s big men – and the momentum they created – largely disappeared in the second half. Duke turned on its defense and limited the Tar Heels to 27 points and 34 percent shooting after halftime, including 0-5 on three-pointers. Blue Devils guard Grayson Allen and forward Brandon Ingram formed a one-two punch late that kept their team within striking distance throughout the night.
“We had a hard time stopping them in the first half,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “In the second half, we did a much better job on the defensive boards.”
Despite North Carolina leading by as much as eight in the second half, Duke took its first lead of the period, 72-71, on a Luke Kennard three-pointer with 2:39 to play. Meeks hit a short jumper to push North Carolina ahead again, but two possessions later the Tar Heels sent Allen to the line. He calmly sank both to give Duke a 74-73 lead with 69 seconds left.
The teams traded fruitless possessions before Johnson rebounded an Allen miss with 20 seconds to play. The Tar Heels charged down court as the clock ticked down, and after some passing, Joel Berry II drove from the top of the key to the free-throw line and launched a jumper. After a little contact from Duke’s Derryck Thornton – on the ball or on the shooter, depending on your perspective -- Berry’s shot fell short.
Somehow, the Blue Devils had survived. “A game like this, you just sit back and say, ‘Man, that was really good,’” Krzyzewski said. “That’s about all you have left to celebrate.”
Asked why he didn’t call a timeout before the final possession, Williams harkened back to lessons taught by Dean Smith himself. “I think you should always attack before the defense gets set,” Williams said. Still, he found himself offering a mea culpa in the locker room. “I told the kids I should’ve called a timeout,” he said.
Despite a host of obstacles – foul trouble limited forward Marshall Plumlee in the second half, while guard Matt Jones left before intermission with an ankle injury and did not return – Duke proved it remains a force to be reckoned with in the ACC. Suddenly the Blue Devils have won five straight games only a few weeks after dropping out of the top 25 for the first time since 2007. Allen, Ingram and Coach K’s crew are still the defending champions, and on Wednesday they weren’t intimidated by a North Carolina team expected to impose its will. A few stumbling blocks remain for Duke, like matchups with Louisville, Pittsburgh and another date with the Tar Heels. But now the Blue Devils are back where they want to be in the conference race.
North Carolina, meanwhile, must find itself – and quickly. Against Duke it didn’t matter that Johnson put up one of the best performances – 29 points and 19 rebounds – in the ACC this season. These Tar Heels are still forced to pick themselves up from heartbreak. North Carolina has the talent to compete with anyone in the country, but does Williams’s crew have the discipline to close big games come tournament time? For one night, the answer was no. Instead, the Tar Heels gift-wrapped an upset for Duke in front of a home crowd. “It stinks, I’m not going to lie,” North Carolina forward Justin Jackson said. “because we felt like we had it.”
If the real North Carolina is ever planning to show up, now is the time. The final weeks of ACC play loom before the conference tournament kicks off in March. The first step at redemption takes place this weekend, when North Carolina hosts Miami, the ACC’s current second-place team. Now the Tar Heels find themselves facing adversity few expected at the beginning of the season. To book their tickets to the Final Four, Williams and North Carolina must decide how they will respond.
“The game against Miami,” guard Marcus Paige said, “might be the biggest game of the year for us.”