Everyone take a breath.
Duke outlasted North Carolina in Cameron Indoor Stadium Wednesday night, 92-90 in overtime, in arguably the best college basketball game of the season. Both teams appeared to have won the contest at different times of the monumental struggle, but the Blue Devils made enough plays down the stretch of regulation and the extra period to escape with the victory.
Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook both led the way for Duke with 22 points, but it was Jones who added eight assists and seven rebounds and made the critical plays in the final minutes to even get the game into overtime. Jahlil Okafor added a double-double with 12 points and 13 rebounds.
Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson spearheaded the North Carolina attack with 18 points apiece, while superstar point guard Marcus Paige only scored five points on 2-of-11 shooting.
While this rivalry is defined by hatred and passion, there is also a level of mutual respect. Never was that clearer than during the pregame moment of silence for former North Carolina coach Dean Smith, of which Ryan Fagan of Sporting News passed along a video:
On the court, things could not have gone much better for Duke in the opening minutes. It jumped out to a 15-6 lead by the first media timeout by pushing the tempo and wearing out the North Carolina defense. Stephen Wiseman of The Herald-Sun noted that this was not how the Tar Heels drew it up, while Jordan Brenner of ESPN The Magazine commented on the pace:
While Okafor is the headline-maker for the Blue Devils, it was Cook piling up the points in the first half. Duke Basketball noted that he was particularly hot from downtown because North Carolina was too focused on Okafor:
Of course, it's easy to focus on the big man when he makes moves like this, as illustrated by Matt Norlander of CBS Sports:
Duke built a 12-point lead in the first half behind Cook's shooting and Okafor's dominance down low, but North Carolina battled back and cut the deficit to 32-26 at the under-eight-minute timeout. ESPN Stats & Info pointed out that the offense was better, while Adam Rowe of 247Sports highlighted the fact that the Tar Heels were racking up more steals than usual:
However, Laura Keeley of the The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer pointed to the depth on the North Carolina side given the uptempo pace of the first half:
Both teams traded first-half runs before the under-four-minute timeout, but the college basketball world froze when this play happened, via Norlander:
Wiseman noted that the raucous Cameron Crazies were completely hushed with their star down, and Jeff Goodman of ESPN described the scene:
Fortunately for the Blue Devils (and anyone who likes college basketball), Okafor returned to the bench less than a minute later on his own power and even came back in the game before halftime. The crowd erupted in applause, but it was North Carolina that closed the first half on a small run to cut the Duke lead to 49-42 at intermission.
It was really no surprise that Okafor fought his way back into the game, given his pregame quote, via Duke Basketball coverage from The Chronicle:
Duke fans may have been relieved to see Okafor on the floor to start the second half, but it was North Carolina that came out with the fire after intermission.
The Tar Heels went on a 10-0 run in the first few minutes of the second half thanks to strong interior play and an acrobatic J.P. Tokoto slam. Goodman and Rowe both noted that Okafor looked far from 100 percent, which was certainly a problem with the Tar Heels pounding it down low:
ESPN Stats & Info pointed out that it really shouldn't have come as a surprise that North Carolina was having its way in the paint:
Given how dominant North Carolina was down low out of the locker room, Brenner wondered if the Blue Devils were going to break out the zone defense fans have seen at times this year:
To nobody's surprise who watched the first 25 minutes of the game, Duke responded to North Carolina's lead with a run of its own. Okafor hit a shot and was fouled with less than 10 minutes remaining to give the Blue Devils a 62-61 lead, but it was Cook who hit a critical three and urged the Cameron Crazies to get back into the game.
ESPN Stats & Info pointed out a very important stat with North Carolina up 64-62 at the under-eight-minute timeout. It's safe to say Cook was playing fairly well and keeping his team afloat on the offensive end:
Even with the lead, things weren't all great for the Tar Heels, as Daniel Wilco of The Daily Tar Heel noted:
With Johnson or not, North Carolina went back to the transition game for a stretch to extend the lead to 68-62 with just over seven minutes remaining. Then, Isaiah Hicks nearly converted an and-1 on the break from a dish from Paige. Suddenly, there was a nervous hush over the crowd for a moment that wasn't there in the first half.
Things got even quieter with 3:56 remaining when the Tar Heels extended the lead to double digits. Wilco pointed out that the offense came from an unexpected source:
Justise Winslow scored five quick points to cut the lead to 79-72 with 2:24 remaining and then drew a foul on a slash to the basket. The outlook appeared bleak for the Blue Devils, but Winslow was doing what he could to keep them in the game at the end.
ESPN's Seth Greenberg was impressed with Winslow's play:
Even with Winslow doing his best to carry the Blue Devils back, ESPN Stats & Info and Jon Solomon of CBS Sports noted what the real problem was for Duke heading into the last minute:
With North Carolina up 79-74 and less than 1:30 remaining, both teams traded sloppy turnovers. It could have been nerves or pure exhaustion after such an emotionally draining game, but the most important thing for the Blue Devils was the fact that they cut the lead to 79-76 after two Jones free throws following that stretch.
Johnson drilled two monumental free throws on the other end with less than a minute remaining as an answer, but Jones responded with an and-1 of his own. Suddenly, it was 81-79 in favor of the Tar Heels with 41 seconds left in the game.
Johnson missed the front end of a one-and-one on the ensuing possession, which set the stage for a dramatic finish.
Jones tied the game with a drive right to the basket off a ball screen from Winslow, and North Carolina called timeout with 21 seconds left. The freshman Jones deserved plenty of credit for putting the team on his back in the closing stretch.
Paige missed a three at the end of regulation, and the game fittingly went into overtime tied at 81-81.
Doug Gottlieb of CBS Sports said what all North Carolina fans were probably thinking, while ESPN Stats & Info set the stage:
The biggest development in the early moments of overtime came when Johnson fouled out for North Carolina. However, Duke missed a number of free throws, including three in a row from Okafor, and failed to take advantage of the early North Carolina fouls.
The teams traded points until there were less than two minutes remaining when Okafor made a beautiful move along the baseline to give his squad a 90-89 lead.
Cook, who is about as automatic of a free-throw shooter as you can ask for in a critical situation as a senior hitting 90.8 percent from the line, then only hit one of two free throws to extend the lead to 91-89. The ball ended up in Tokoto's hands on the ensuing North Carolina possession, and he bricked a mid-range jumper.
Cook then made one of two on the line again to stretch the lead to 92-89 with five seconds remaining.
Duke smartly fouled on the next possession, and Nate Britt hit the first to trim the lead to 92-90 before missing the second on purpose. The Blue Devils ended up with the ball and the heart-stopping win that came with it after a deflected rebound was up for grabs.
Troy Machir of Sporting News had the final play:
Duke 92, North Carolina 90.
Duke will look to keep its momentum at home in its next game Saturday against a Clemson team that is only 15-11 on the season and 7-7 in ACC play. On paper, the Blue Devils should handle the Tigers, but there is something to be said for coming off the emotional high of this rivalry game.
It may be difficult to get up for a mediocre opponent a few short days after Wednesday's win.
As for North Carolina, it returns home to face Georgia Tech and will face the same issue as Duke. The Yellow Jackets are 12-14 on the season and 3-11 in ACC play, and the Tar Heels shouldn't have much problem picking up a win if they are emotionally ready.
Still, a victory over Georgia Tech would do little to erase the taste of defeat from North Carolina's mouths after Wednesday's contest.