For the first 25 minutes of Friday’s UNC-Duke showdown in Brooklyn as part of the ACC Tournament Semifinals, it appeared the top-seeded Tar Heels would pound the Blue Devils into the ground with their inside play.
Then point guard Joel Berry went to the bench with his fourth foul and the entire game changed—as Duke rallied from 13 points down to win 93-83.
Freshman standout Jayson Tatum led the Blue Devils with 24 points in the game, while First Team All-ACC guard Luke Kennard scored 15 of his 20 points during Duke’s second half comeback.
Grayson Allen also added 18 points and five three-pointers for head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s squad–which will play on Saturday for its first ACC Tournament title since 2011.
Although Berry had just 10 points in the game for UNC, his impact on the Tar Heels’ offensive flow was obvious during the ten minute second-half stretch he sat glued to his chair.
Not only did Duke outscore the Tar Heels 27-14 during that crucial time period, senior forward Kennedy Meeks–who, along with Isaiah Hicks, tied for the UNC scoring lead with 19 points–made only one second-half basket with Berry on the bench.
“Well that had an effect,” UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters when asked about the situation. “But that takes away from what Duke did. I really believe that. I don’t want to use any excuses. North Carolina was still playing Duke.”
By the time Williams inserted his point guard back into the action with under five minutes remaining, Duke had stretched its lead to seven points–and gained all momentum–after a huge dunk from freshman forward Harry Giles.
Of course, by then, there wasn’t much any one man could do.
Gone were the easy looks around the rim that came so effortless during a first half where the Tar Heels racked up 32 of their 49 points in the paint. They were replaced instead by motivated Blue Devil defenders playing pressure defense around the perimeter and packing the paint–daring UNC to beat them from outside.
“Our offense stopped moving, they picked us up a little bit in the backcourt and we wasted some time in the backcourt getting down.” Williams said. “And when we had shots–if I remember a couple of them–I think we rushed ’em a little bit, forced ’em a little bit.”
UNC ultimately converted on just five of its 22 attempts from behind the three-point line, with Duke again frustrating leading scorer Justin Jackson for the second time in six days–holding him to 16 points on 22 shots.
If the first half on Friday was an example of what everything looks like when it goes right for the Tar Heels, then the second half provided a blueprint for how to beat them.
It’s no secret how important Berry is in the role of quarterback for this team’s offense.
The key to UNC’s win over Duke last weekend with his 28 points and clutch shot making, it wasn’t Berry, but it was his absence, that proved to be the difference maker on Friday.
With the NCAA Tournament now on the horizon, all the Tar Heels can at this point is hope they don’t meet the same fate down the stretch–or else their season may come to an early ending.
“Right now it’s best for me to stay away from my players because I’m ready to jump off the top of the building or something like that, so I’m giving them some space,” Williams said. “But I did tell them in the locker room–and it’s true–that my teams have taken me to eight Final Fours. Six of those, we lost in the Semifinals of the Conference Tournament.
“I’m not trying to make anybody mad, the coach added. “But our final goal was not to win the ACC Tournament. Our final goal is to play on the last Monday night and win the game there.”
The Tar Heels will now have to wait until Sunday afternoon to find out their NCAA Tournament seeding and destination.
- Duke has now won the last six ACC Tournament meetings in the rivalry.
- The Blue Devils converted on 33 of their 37 free throw attempts. UNC went just 14-for-18.
- Meeks had just 17 points combined in UNC’s first two meetings against Duke this season.
- The Tar Heels assisted on 44 of their 60 made shots during their two-game ACC Tournament run–including 14 by Theo Pinson.