North Carolina was about to clinch a victory over its archrival, Duke, and maintain its control of the ACC standings Wednesday.
But it wasn't to be.
Somehow, the Blue Devils came away with an incredible 74-73 road win in the latest edition of the fierce Tobacco Road rivalry. North Carolina led for the vast majority of the game against a Duke squad that was battling through injuries, foul trouble and an alarming lack of depth but still managed to lose on its home floor.
The Tar Heels held a 68-60 advantage until Brandon Ingram ignited a 14-5 run in the game's final six-and-a-half minutes with what appeared to be a relatively meaningless jumper at the time. From there, he and Grayson Allen put the offense on their backs, and North Carolina seemed to forget Brice Johnson existed down the stretch.
Laura Keeley of the Raleigh News and Observer and Charlotte Observer reacted to the effort from the No. 5 Tar Heels:
That was one of the poorest efforts I've ever seen by a national title contender. Duke wins 74-73. No one can believe it— Laura Keeley (@laurakeeley) February 18, 2016
Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo Sports credited No. 20 Duke for the win but echoed some of those same sentiments:
That is a remarkable win for Duke under the circumstances, but some of the blame has to go to Roy/UNC's guards for not feeding Brice.— Jeff Eisenberg (@JeffEisenberg) February 18, 2016
Keeley summed up the closing minutes:
basically Duke went with what worked and UNC decided to go away from it. Duke had no answer for Brice Johnson & he disappears in 2nd half— Laura Keeley (@laurakeeley) February 18, 2016
Ingram finished with a double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds, while Allen scored a team-high 23 points and calmly drilled what proved to be the game-winning free throws with 1:09 remaining. Johnson was nearly unstoppable for North Carolina with 29 points and 18 rebounds, but his last field-goal attempt of the game came with 4:44 left as the ball-handlers failed to give him scoring opportunities.
While neither team scored after Allen's aforementioned free throws, it was all offense early in the game. North Carolina took a 46-42 lead into the locker room at halftime, and Johnson tallied a double-double in the opening 20 minutes with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
While the Blue Devils were trailing at intermission, the score was far from their only concern. Keeley noted Matt Jones was helped off the court and couldn't put weight on his left foot. Keeley also observed Duke had no reserve guards on scholarship remaining following Jones' injury and reflected on the dire situation:
It's hard to see how Duke wins without Matt Jones available, to be honest— Laura Keeley (@laurakeeley) February 18, 2016
Alas, the offense kept the Blue Devils within striking distance and entertained Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports:
Lots of exciting basketball that half from Duke and Carolina. Not much of it at the defensive end, but that wasn't the expectation anyway.— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) February 18, 2016
Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated praised Duke for keeping it to within four at the half, especially since it was already without an injured Amile Jefferson:
UNC leads at half 46-42. Love high score! Given everything that happened Duke did quite well to stay close. Mentally tough, making shots.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) February 18, 2016
North Carolina continued to force the ball to Johnson early in the second half against the injury-plagued Blue Devils. He helped push the lead to 52-45 and earned this response from Jeff Goodman of ESPN:
Brice Johnson could finish with 50 and 25 tonight if UNC keeps feeding him. Seriously.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) February 18, 2016
It looked like danger time for Duke, but Ingram kept his team close and prompted this question from Jordan Brenner of ESPN The Magazine:
Am I crazy thinking that Brandon Ingram might -- MIGHT -- be a better pro than Ben Simmons?— Jordan Brenner (@JordanBrenner) February 18, 2016
Things appeared to take another turn for the worse for Duke when Marshall Plumlee picked up his fourth foul before the under-12-minute timeout. Andrew Carter of the News and Observer and Charlotte Observer put things in perspective for the road team that was already facing an uphill battle:
Without Plumlee, Duke reliant on 6-10 freshman Chase Jeter, who averages 4.5 minutes of playing time in ACC games.— Andrew Carter (@_andrewcarter) February 18, 2016
Davis pointed to another concern:
Duke can't be missing open shots like that. Zero room for error these last 12 minutes.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) February 18, 2016
Despite all the obstacles, Duke was only down 64-60 at the under-eight-minute timeout. Nicole Auerbach of USA Today said, "Duke just won't go away. And Carolina won't put 'em away," while Eisenberg was confused about North Carolina's offensive strategy:
Brice Johnson has 27. He's being guarded by a slower center who has four fouls. Would it not be a good idea to draw something up for him?— Jeff Eisenberg (@JeffEisenberg) February 18, 2016
The Tar Heels were an abysmal 1-of-12 from three-point range with 7:47 left and simply weren't pounding it inside enough. On the other side, Ingram made five of his first nine shots in the second half and had Duke down just 70-69 with less than four minutes remaining. Brenner had a scary realization for some of the potential higher seeds in the NCAA tournament:
Ingram is a stud. And if Jefferson comes back and Jones is OK, how would you like to have Duke in your bracket as a 5 or 6 seed?— Jordan Brenner (@JordanBrenner) February 18, 2016
Incredibly, Duke took the lead with 2:40 left when Luke Kennard drilled a three-pointer. Carter responded to the turn of events:
And Duke leads 72-71 after a Kennard 3. Shocking this is even a game, really, given Duke's circumstances.— Andrew Carter (@_andrewcarter) February 18, 2016
From there, Kennedy Meeks made a layup, and Allen responded with his two free throws. Suddenly, Duke had the lead with less than a minute left, but North Carolina had one last chance to win the game. However, Joel Berry missed an out-of-control runner in the lane on his team's last possession, and Duke ran off the court with the 74-73 victory in front of a stunned crowd in Chapel Hill.
Carter noted the Tar Heels completely fell apart down the stretch:
I have no idea how UNC lost that. But it did. 74-73 Duke. Tar Heels just completely fell apart. Duke made winning plays. Crazy finish.— Andrew Carter (@_andrewcarter) February 18, 2016
It was an incredible win for the Blue Devils, an inexplicable loss for the Tar Heels and just another chapter in arguably the greatest rivalry in sports.
North Carolina was atop the ACC standings and controlled its own destiny before Wednesday’s loss, but it now finds itself tied with Miami at 10-3 and a half-game ahead of 10-4 Virginia.
Things don’t get much easier for the Tar Heels with road trips to No. 7 Virginia and archrivals North Carolina State and Duke remaining. That rematch against the Blue Devils comes on March 5 in Durham against a potentially healthier Duke squad, which is worrisome for Roy Williams’ team since it couldn’t even win Wednesday.
North Carolina also faces Miami at home in its next game Saturday. On one hand, a victory over their fellow first-place team would be an ideal way for the Tar Heels to bounce back, but it is fair to wonder how ready to play they will be after Wednesday’s devastating loss.
As for the Blue Devils, they suddenly find themselves in the ACC logjam a game behind North Carolina and Miami at 9-4. Louisville and Notre Dame are also both 9-4 in ACC play.
Mike Krzyzewski’s squad travels to Louisville to face that Cardinals team it already beat once and then plays three winnable contests before the rematch with North Carolina. Of those three upcoming opponents (Pittsburg, Florida State and Wake Forest), only the Panthers (7-6) are above .500 in conference play.
Duke was left for dead after four losses in a five-game stretch in January, but it is now a real threat to win the ACC following its fifth straight win. Now, it has to find a way to get healthy.
SportsCenter noted in the aftermath it was more of the same in the recent history of this rivalry:
Duke has now won 4 straight games vs UNC (1st time since 2003-05) and 11 of the last 14. pic.twitter.com/Ive1poU33r— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 18, 2016
SportsCenter also pointed out the contest was part of a historic day in college basketball:
This is just the 4th time in the last 20 seasons that 3 Top-5 teams have lost in the same day. pic.twitter.com/xXr6LhOX3K— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 18, 2016
That wasn’t much solace to Williams. Carter said the North Carolina coach had tears in his eyes and simply said, “You’ve got to make plays...”
North Carolina point guard Marcus Paige reflected on the loss, per Carter: “They made some shots. I just said that Brandon Ingram made some really tough shots. We didn't get the ball where we needed it to go, and we missed some easy ones – had some turnovers. That's – yeah.”
Ingram made some tough shots and was a focal point in the second half for the Blue Devils, as Allen told Keeley: “For a long stretch there, just hand the ball off to Brandon and let him work just because he’s a special, special player, and he hit some really big and tough shots for us. Coach just really trusted us to make plays, just space it out, and play off of instinct on offense.”
However, it wasn’t all good news for Duke. Krzyzewski said, “Matt's really sprained his ankle pretty badly,” about Jones after the guard left the game on crutches, per ESPNU.
It is certainly concerning, but the dramatic win seemed to lift Jones’ spirits:
Wow wow wow... This team has the heart of champions! With Gods grace we will keep pushing on— Matt jones (@matt13jones_) February 18, 2016
The defending national champions did play with the requisite heart Wednesday and now appear to be a force with Selection Sunday on the horizon.