Roy Williams, like most of Chapel Hill, was at a loss for words at the Dean Smith Center on Wednesday night after watching his No. 5 Tar Heels drop yet another heartbreaker to the hated Duke Blue Devils, this one by a score of 74-73.

Despite trailing 68-60 with just over six minutes to play, the Blue Devils, ranked 20th in the nation, stormed back to steal the lead with just more than 60 seconds of that time remaining.

But moments later, following a missed shot by Duke sophomore guard Grayson Allen, the Tar Heels had one final opportunity to get it back.

Brice Johnson had 29 points and 19 rebounds for UNC, but only two of those points came in the final 13 minutes. (Todd Melet)

Brice Johnson had 29 points and 19 rebounds for UNC, but only two of those points came in the final 13 minutes. (Todd Melet)

Point-man Joel Berry drove the ball to the basket and jumped into the trees, looking for a foul call that never came. UNC had three timeouts at its disposal, but decided to let the sequence play out and came up short.

For that, Williams could only apologize.

“I told [the players] I was sorry,” the coach said. “I should have gotten them a better shot at the end of the game.”

Duke, which went through a stretch where it lost four of five games, has now won five straight to improve to 20-6 this season with a 9-4 record in the ACC.

UNC, meanwhile, is now 21-5 and loses its stranglehold on first place in the conference—falling into a tie with Miami at 10-3 in the league.

Senior guard Marcus Paige shot just 2-of-10 on Wednesday, accounting for just seven points—but he made it clear after the game that his coach didn’t need to say sorry to anybody for anything.

“Didn’t need to hear it,” Paige said of Williams’ apology. “Didn’t want to hear it. But that’s just the competitor that Coach is. He’s gonna try to find ways to get better, and we gotta do the same thing.”

He continued by explaining the team’s strategy in that situation, something Williams said was taught to him by the late Dean Smith.

“We know that if there’s more than seven seconds on the game clock that we want to attack before the defense has a chance to get set,” Paige said.

Before the rally that ultimately decided the outcome, UNC looked to be in complete control—seemingly riding a 29-point, 19-rebound night from senior forward Brice Johnson all the way to the promise land.

However, Johnson shot just once over the last 12 minutes and his monstrous performance went from headline to afterthought in the blink of an eye.

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski was still left grasping for words though—much like Williams—when discussing the effort of UNC’s ACC Player of the Year candidate.

Wiry freshman Brandon Ingram put together his own double-double--finishing with 20 points and 10 rebounds for Duke.

Wiry freshman Brandon Ingram put together his own double-double–finishing with 20 points and 10 rebounds for Duke.

“These games are so damn good,” Krzyzewski said. “So tough. And Brice Johnson’s unbelievable now,” he added. “He’s so damn good.

“But our kids were good too, so we earned a really hard fought win tonight,” he added.

After losing guard Matt Jones to a sprained left ankle at the end of the first half, Duke was down to just five players in its playing rotation for the final 20 minutes.

Behind 23 points from Allen, 20 from star freshman Brandon Ingram, and 15 from Luke Kennard off the bench, the Blue Devils managed to shake off their fatigue and pulled out a win from the jaws of defeat.

Recently this has become all too common in this rivalry, with Duke winning six of the last seven meetings between the teams.

“It’s a wonderful rivalry to be involved in,” Williams said. “But I’m sick and tired of just being involved.

“We’ve gotta play better.”

Up Next:

The Tar Heels have yet to beat a ranked team in ACC play, going 0-3 in those games.

But now a first-place matchup against the No. 11 Miami Hurricanes looms on Saturday.

As crushing as this loss is for UNC, the team simply has no time to dwell on it–or the season could quickly snowball out of control.

Game Notes:

  • Justin Jackson, with 13 points on 6-of-13 shooting, was the only Tar Heel to join Johnson in double figures. It was Jackson’s fourth double-figure performance in the last five games.
  • The Tar Heels shot 1-of-13 (7.7%) from three-point range (the third lowest percentage in school history), compared to Duke’s 7-of-19 (36.8%)–a major reason the Blue Devils hung around.
  • It was Johnson’s fourth 20-point, 10-rebound game of the season.
  • Allen and Ingram each played the entire game for Duke.