The 21st-ranked UNC men’s basketball team used a strong second-half surge to defeat the No. 9 Duke Blue Devils 82-78 Thursday night at the Dean Smith Center, in the first meeting of the season between arguably the two biggest rivals in all of sports.
It was the latest installment in the rivalry to come down to crunch time, as graduate transfer Cameron Johnson hit a crucial three-pointer with just over three minutes to play that helped UNC (18-7, 7-5 ACC) gain valuable breathing room as time ticked away.
Prior to that shot, the Tar Heels went scoreless for nearly six minutes—a stretch that included 13 consecutive missed shots—as Duke (19-5, 7-5 ACC) whittled its 10-point deficit down to just three.
Free throws from senior point guard Joel Berry, who led UNC with a game-high 21 points, and a statement dunk from fellow senior Theo Pinson then iced up the most important victory of the team’s season so far.
Led by its dominant freshman frontcourt of Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter, Duke got everything it wanted inside during the early portion of the game—building a 12-point lead toward the later stages of the first half.
From there, something clicked for head coach Roy Williams’ Tar Heels, as they took control in the rebounding battle and gathered 15 of their own misses in the second half alone.
The results showed on the scoreboard, as well, with UNC closing the opening period on a 17-9 run—then beginning the second half with a 16-2 run that completely changed the face of the game.
“It wasn’t a tactical change,” Williams said, of his team’s second-half turnaround. “It’s just something we preach all the time. And at halftime, we talked about defending, rebounding and playing with a great deal of effort. That’s the three things we push.”
Although Berry ended up leading UNC in scoring and junior forward Luke Maye ended up with a solid 15 points and eight rebounds, it was Johnson and guard Kenny Williams who carried the bulk of the offensive load for the Tar Heels.
Johnson’s late three-pointer was his fourth in the game, as he ultimately finished with 18 points and a team-high 13 rebounds.
Williams, meanwhile, continually got the crowd riled up with his perimeter shooting—converting six of his 12 shots from deep on the way to just his second 20-point scoring night of his career.
With Duke holding such an obvious advantage in size, the Tar Heels ended up attempting a season-high 33 shots from beyond the arc. This was part of the reason UNC shot just 39 percent total for the game.
Still, though, the Tar Heels tied a school record by turning the ball over just two times—which was another major factor in the upset victory.
Having battled some up-and-down stretches in recent weeks, this win should provide UNC with some much-needed confidence moving forward.
And for players like Pinson and Berry—seniors playing their last home game against Duke—this one was that much sweeter than all the rest.
“My last time playing them here, it was a little emotional for me and Theo [Pinson],” Berry told reporters afterwards. “I think that’s what made me want to go out there and play even harder—even though I’m a competitor.
“Taking pride in defending home court, and it being my last time [against Duke at the Smith Center], I wanted to get that one.”
A short turnaround awaits the Tar Heels now, as they’ll have Friday off before traveling to Raleigh to face NC State on Saturday–a game scheduled to start at 2 p.m.
- Kenny Williams’ six threes were the most by a Tar Heel against Duke since Hubert Davis also hit six back in 1992.
- UNC sophomore guard Seventh Woods entered the game midway through the first half to a loud ovation from the crowd. After missing over two months with a broken foot, it was his first game action since scoring four points in eight minutes on Nov. 29 against Michigan.
- Entering the night, UNC and Duke were ranked as the top two teams in the country in rebounds per game.
Photo via Todd Melet