Offense has typically been what UNC is known for under head coach Roy Williams, but it’s the defense that’s carried the Tar Heels to three straight wins in the ACC Tournament—including a 74-69 victory over the No. 2 seed Duke Blue Devils in Friday’s Semifinals.
Coming into Friday night’s series rubber match between the two arch-rivals, Duke ranked fifth in the country with a team scoring average of over 85 points per game.
Through sheer willpower and emotion, the undersized Tar Heels (25-9, 14-7 ACC) held the Blue Devils well below that season average to punch their ticket into Saturday’s ACC Title Game.
Star freshman Marvin Bagley III was able to put together his usual high-level production for Duke—posting 19 points and 13 rebounds—but as a team, the Blue Devils shot just 42 percent from the floor and made only six three-pointers.
Over the last three nights, UNC has not allowed a single one of its opponents to shoot better than what Duke did on Friday—a far cry from the team that has struggled on that side of the ball for most of the season.
The Blue Devils managed to put together a 13-0 run late in the game to cut a 16-point deficit to just three with less than a minute remaining, but the Tar Heels were able to hang tight and close out the win when Grayson Allen’s potential game-tying three came up short.
For this level of success to keep going, Tar Heel point guard Joel Berry knows his team will have to stay strong on the defensive end in future games all the way through the final buzzer.
“That’s the one thing that’s just been killing us,” Berry told reporters afterwards. “Like I always say, we can score the ball. We have people that can score.
“But it’s just about can you stop other people from scoring,” he added. “And when we’re playing defense and we’re out there just running around and being active and competing—you know, it’s hard to stop us.”
Offensively, the Tar Heels received a huge bounce-back game from junior forward Luke Maye.
After scoring just two points on 1-for-15 shooting in Thursday’s win over Miami, Maye responded with a team-high 17 points and 10 rebounds against Duke.
The Huntersville native played a large role hitting short jumpers inside the heart of the Blue Devils’ zone defense, as he and each of the other Tar Heel starters not named Cameron Johnson also added at least four assists.
Theo Pinson continued to assert himself as a potential tournament MVP candidate, with another all-around stat line—eight points, seven assists and four rebounds—that shows why he’s the catalyst for the team’s collective unselfishness.
“We have really good passers on this team, like I’ve said before,” Pinson said. “We look for each other and we’re very unselfish. And that’s one thing we don’t have to worry about.
“You’re willing to move and cut when you know guys are looking for you,” he added. “And I think that’s the biggest thing for us.”
UNC also received important contributions from freshmen forwards Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley, who added 10 and six points, respectively, off the bench in a game their team led for all but a minute and 35 seconds.
As a result, bragging rights will reside in Chapel Hill for the next year or so with the Tar Heels claiming a two to one victory in the season series with Duke.
On top of that, however, UNC will also get a chance on Saturday to play for its second conference tournament title in three years against a Virginia team that hasn’t shown many weaknesses this season.
“Guys, they’re the number one team in the country,” Williams said about Virginia. “They’re the number one team, unanimously, and they beat us by 77 points or whatever it was. So we’ve got to try and go in there and play the perfect game.”
The Tar Heels will take on Virginia at 9:00 p.m. on Saturday night for ACC supremacy.
- It was UNC’s first win over Duke in the ACC Tournament since the 1998 conference title game.
- The Tar Heels had 24 assists on 28 made field goals.
- Controversy arose late in the first half when Duke guard Grayson Allen was given a Flagrant Foul after using his backside in order to trip Garrison Brooks, something that was magnified even more due to his past history with similar incidents.
Cover photo via Julie Jacobson (Associated Press)