There have been moments. Ones where Jabari Parker starts looking like an overwhelmed freshman. When the jump shot isn't falling or the complexities of team defense make him drop his head in frustration.
Saturday night featured none of those moments.
Parker scored a career-high 30 points, Rodney Hood added 24 more and Duke closed its regular season with a much-needed 93-81 victory over rival North Carolina on Saturday.
Duke (24-7, 13-5 ACC) has now won 33 straight home games, a streak that dates back to a North Carolina victory in Durham two years ago. While the faces for both sides are wildly different than in 2012 and neither team will be cutting down a regular-season net, seniors from both sides knew what this game meant.
Only everyone was upstaged by one sensational freshman.
Playing in what could be his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Parker gave Duke fans a preview of what they might miss. He was engaged from the opening tip on both ends of the floor, stepping up to the challenge of facing North Carolina forward J.P. Tokoto and Roy Williams' changing defensive schemes.
He and Hood combined for 27 of Duke's 40 first-half points, keeping the Blue Devils ahead by three going into the break. But Parker and Duke's true ascent came in the second half.
With a roaring, celebrity-filled crowd at his back, Parker made the opening basket and sparked a dominant Duke run. The Blue Devils scored 10 of the second half's first 12 points, instantly turning a one-possession game into a comfortable Duke lead.
Although North Carolina battled back to bring the game near respectability, Duke spent much of the second half flexing its scoring muscles. Parker and Co. led by as many as 19 points during multiple stretches, breaking down the North Carolina defense to shoot 50.9 percent from the field. At certain points, it looked as if Hood and Parker were toying with a fangless Tar Heel defense.
Hood finished with 24 points on 8-of-13 shooting and knocked down three of Duke's eight shots from beyond the arc.
Parker, meanwhile, is deserving of all the plaudits that will come after this game. As pointed out by ESPN Stats & Info, Parker certainly saved his best for last. His 30 points were the most by a Duke freshman in the history of this great rivalry, and it's been 30 years since we've seen any player his age hit that mark:
Jabari Parker has 30 Pts, most ever by a Duke freshman vs UNC and most by a freshman in a Duke-UNC game since 1974 (UNC's Walter Davis).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 9, 2014
Heading into the ACC tournament, it's safe to say Parker is over his midseason slump. He has six consecutive double-doubles, has recaptured the aggression from early in the season and is engaged more than ever on the defensive end. That aggression infected the entire Blue Devils roster on Saturday. Duke shot 27-of-31 from the free-throw line, including an 8-of-9 mark from Parker.
As pointed out by Jones Angell of the Tar Heel Sports Network, the Blue Devils went nearly seven minutes without a field goal to finish the game:
Duke's last 16 points came at the FT line. Blue Devils did not hit a FG the final 6:56.— Jones Angell (@JonesAngell) March 9, 2014
Some of that was certainly because North Carolina began fouling early to get back into the game. Guards Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon got into double digits thanks almost entirely to their late-game trips to the line.
Still, North Carolina's strategy had its merits. The Tar Heels cut the lead to eight with 2:49 remaining, but Duke's shooter-heavy lineup was cold blooded at the stripe.
Marcus Paige led the way with 24 points, most of which came in the second half. Forward Brice Johnson was the team's anchor before the torrid comeback, finishing with 15 points and nine rebounds. Johnson was forced into a starring role as James Michael McAdoo could not stay on the court because of foul trouble.
North Carolina hit 59.6 percent of its shots overall. If you told Williams before the game his team would come within a shot or two of 60 percent from the field, odds are he would have taken it. And, going into the ACC tournament, the offensive flow is something North Carolina can build upon. The Tar Heels rank only 49th nationally in offensive efficiency, per college basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, and a majority of their losses have come due to an offensive swoon.
Most teams aren't going to have players like Parker and Hood lighting up the scoreboard. Even Duke isn't quite used to the duo being spectacular together, as coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters after the game:
"JP and Rodney were sensational. They've both been good together, but this is the first time they've been sensational together." Coach K— Duke Basketball (@dukeblueplanet) March 9, 2014
The Blue Devils clinch the third seed in the ACC with their victory. It's been an up-and-down campaign, with a bitter slump pushing them to the brink of being unranked before finding themselves late in the season. No one better exemplifies that than Parker. And he proved just how far he and this team have come against their biggest rivals on Saturday.
|James Michael McAdoo, F||B-|
|J.P. Tokoto, F||C|
|Kennedy Meeks, F||C|
|Marcus Paige, G||B|
|Leslie McDonald, G||C+|
|Jackson Simmons, F||C|
|Brice Johnson, F||B+|
|Joel James, F||C|
|Isaiah Hicks, F||C|
|Nate Britt, G||B-|
|Josh Hairston, F||C|
|Rodney Hood, F||A-|
|Jabari Parker, F||A|
|Tyler Thornton, G||C|
|Andre Dawkins, G||C+|
|Marshall Plumlee, C||C|
|Amile Jefferson, F||B-|
|Matt Jones, G||C|
|Quinn Cook, G||B-|
|Rasheed Sulaimon, G||B-|
Players of the Game: Jabari Parker (F, Duke) and Brice Johnson (F, North Carolina)
Even if Parker has come back to earth from his scorching start to the season—especially as a shooter—it's impossible to watch him play and not see the future. Parker has the most polished offensive game among his contemporary freshman. He can work in the post down low, create separation for his own pull-up jumper and catch to face up without any problem.
All of that was on display Saturday night. With the lengthy J.P. Tokoto, North Carolina's best defender, draping all over him in an attempt to frustrate him, Parker showed why NBA scouts have so much confidence in his transition. One possession he would receive a post entry pass, face up and nail a jumper. The next, he'd face up again, see Tokoto starting to expect the jumper and drive right to the hole.
When North Carolina went to zone, Parker patiently picked his spots. There weren't many rushed or outright bad shots, a key adjustment Parker has made since his midseason swoon.
With Hood rainmaking from beyond the arc, Duke had a two-man wing game that proved impossible to stop.
Parker gets the nod for player of the game, mostly because of the degree of difficulty of his matchup. Tokoto was mostly rendered ineffective, but that's no easy task. He's one of the nation's finest defenders, someone who anchors the Tar Heels' effective defense. In zone, Tokoto still did a nice job of keeping Duke away from the rim. Man-to-man just wasn't his friend.
Picking a top player on Carolina's side is inherently more difficult. McAdoo may have wound up with the best game of his career had he been able to stay out of foul trouble. Paige, the team's second-half wizard, was more likely to turn the ball over than put it in the basket until garbage time. Essentially, it came down to choosing between Johnson and Paige's late run.
The former gets the nod simply because most of his production came before garbage time. Johnson was thrust into extended minutes because of McAdoo's foul trouble and was solid throughout. He grabbed rebounds, made tough buckets down low and played scrappy defense.
It was ultimately in a losing cause, but Johnson deserves credit for filling his stat sheet when the game was close. Not running up the point total when the Blue Devils were up 15 or more.
Both teams will play next in the ACC tournament and receive byes. Their matchups will be determined based on how the tournament shakes out.
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