Duke Pulls off Improbable Heist vs. UNC in Unexpectedly Thrilling Chapter of Rivalry

Even when North Carolina is having its worst season in years, the UNC-Duke rivalry still managed to deliver an instant classic.
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Duke beats UNC basketball rivalry 2020 Wendell Moore

The Duke-North Carolina rivalry never disappoints, does it?

With UNC mired in its worst season in 18 years, the first chapter of the 2020 edition of the rivalry didn’t seem likely to deliver an instant classic. The Tar Heels came into Saturday at 10-12 on the season, including a 3-8 record in the ACC. Duke, meanwhile, has been a top-10 team all year, and was favored by 7.5 points in Vegas and projected to win by 11 on KenPom.

Naturally, though, this rivalry was having none of that. And the 45 minutes of game time (spaced out over nearly three hours) that followed were full of unlikely turn after unlikely turn, from Carolina's surprising control of much of the game, to a wild Duke comeback in the final five minutes of regulation that ended in an improbable game-tying sequence, to a roller coaster overtime period that ended in yet another crazy sequence by Duke, which won 98-96 on Wendell Moore's stunning put-back lay-up at the buzzer.

It was a heartbreaking ending for the Tar Heels, who had endless chances to put the game away and were undone by 14 Blue Devils offensive rebounds and an astounding 17 missed free throws. Carolina came out from the start with a renewed focus and a rejuvenated supporting cast around Cole Anthony, getting solid contributions from everyone from Garrison Brooks to Christian Keeling to Justin Pierce to eventually take a 13-point lead with 4:16 left in regulation. That's also when star freshman Duke big man Vernon Carey Jr. fouled out, making the outlook for a comeback by Mike Krzyzewski's team bleak. 

Instead, the Blue Devils were just getting started. Timely threes by Joey Baker and Alex O'Connell set the stage for the Tre Jones Takeover, with the point guard scoring eight points in the final 50 seconds of regulation to force overtime. After UNC failed to ice the game from the free throw line, Jones flipped the tables when Roy Williams opted to have his team foul the sophomore while up three in the final seconds. Jones calmly sank the first, then intentionally ricocheted the second off the rim so hard, he was able to recover it from the perimeter and get just enough space for a long, game-tying jumper.

In overtime, Jones and Anthony traded blows while both coaches navigated around key players fouling out. The Tar Heels rallied to once again take the upper hand, this time leading by four with 21 seconds left, but fell victim to more clutch play by Jones and a controversial non-foul call that gave Duke the ball back, leading to Moore's game-winner.

Jones finished with 28 points, six assists and three steals, and with his name forever etched in Duke-Carolina lore thanks to his legendary effort late in regulation and in OT. His point guard counterpart, Anthony, had 24 points and 11 rebounds in just his third game back after rehabbing from knee surgery.

Winning on Saturday wouldn't have changed the fact that the Tar Heels aren’t going dancing this year, barring a miracle run through the ACC tournament, but it would've been an instant jolt to an uncharacteristic lost season in Chapel Hill and something to build upon. Instead, Carolina had to watch its bitter rival celebrate on its home court, deflating what had been a raucous Dean Dome crowd.

For Duke, the improbable win was immensely important, especially on the same day that it was just given the No. 5 ranking in the NCAA tournament selection committee's current Top 16 reveal. Even on the road, a defeat to the 2019-20 version of the Tar Heels wouldn't have looked good, and would've actually been a Quadrant 2 loss after UNC entered the day ranked 94th in the NET rankings.

Now, the Blue Devils remain tied with Florida State at 10-2 for second in the ACC behind Louisville, with the two teams about to clash in Durham in less than 48 hours. That's an extremely quick turnaround after such an emotional overtime victory, but if we learned anything on Saturday—beyond the fact that this rivalry remains as intense and exciting as ever—it's that this Duke team, just like its point guard, is resilient.