Against all odds, the outmanned and outmuscled No. 20 Duke Blue Devils hung around just long enough for a miraculous 74-73 win over No. 5 North Carolina on Wednesday night.
Marshall Plumlee dealt with foul trouble all night long. Matt Jones suffered an ankle injury midway through the first half and did not return. Brice Johnson was playing like a Player of the Year candidate who knew the whole world was watching.
And yet, the Blue Devils never fell behind by more than eight points, eventually going on a late run for a come-from-behind victory on the road against their loathed rivals, proving to both themselves and everyone else that they can beat anyone.
"I think this was the best game we've played this year," said Brandon Ingram to ESPN's Shannon Spake after putting up 20 points and 10 rebounds against the team he might have suited up for if not for concerns about the NCAA's investigation of North Carolina.
It was an outstanding win for the Blue Devils' psyche and an even better one for their NCAA tournament resume. Once rumored to be on the bubble, as Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis noted, they have won back-to-back games against RPI Top 10 teams and now have a grand total of 12 RPI Top 100 wins with no particularly bad losses.
If they can extend this five-game winning streak to six with a road win over Louisville on Saturday, Duke might be back in the conversation for a No. 1 seed on Sunday.
(The Tar Heels, on the other hand, are quickly losing hope of a spot on the top line. With three losses in the last five games and only one RPI Top 35 win all season, the resume isn't looking all that great. Neither was Wednesday night's play by just about everyone other than Johnson.)
But Duke's celebration and thoughts of upcoming opportunities quickly turned sour as ESPN's cameras made sure to lock onto Jones jumping up and down on one foot at the final buzzer before also showing him hobbling off the court on crutches.
As Nicole Auerbach of USA Today reported, Jones wasn't exactly walking without a limp after the postgame festivities, either:
Nicole Auerbach @NicoleAuerbach
Duke's Matt Jones is walking out of the arena w/ left ankle wrapped and w/ crutches. We'll see how serious this injury is.2016-2-18 04:42:07
Mike Krzyzewski had little to offer reporters after the game other than saying, "Matt Jones really sprained his ankle pretty badly," according to ESPN's Jeff Goodman.
It seems we'll have to wait at least until morning to know the extent of the sprain, but it certainly looked like a bad one—both in terms of what the replay showed and how quickly he was effectively ruled out of returning to the game.
If you'll recall, Jahlil Okafor had a pretty ugly-looking ankle sprain last year in Duke's first game against the Tar Heels, but he gutted it out to play nearly every minute of that contest before missing the subsequent one against Clemson.
Jones—a veteran leader who knows all too well just how short-handed this roster is right now—didn't even try to get back out on the court for one of the biggest games of the entire season.
We don't want to speculate, but that can't possibly be a good sign.
So what happens now with Amile Jefferson still on the sideline with no return date and the status of Jones' ankle completely up in the air?
Save for one game against Wake Forest in which he only played 26 minutes because of foul trouble, Jones had logged at least 32 minutes in every single game since the beginning of December. He hasn't been that much of a scorer lately—7.7 points per game over his last nine as opposed to 13.9 through the first 16—but he's a strong ball-handler who distributes well without committing turnovers.
He certainly isn't the most indispensable player on the roster—an injury to Grayson Allen, Ingram or Plumlee would be even more catastrophic—but they can't afford to go on very long without him. Derryck Thornton and Luke Kennard have improved substantially since the beginning of the season, but Jones' veteran leadership will be sorely missed for however long we have to watch those freshmen try to shoulder the backcourt load without him.
If the ankle is so bad he's unable to play the rest of the season, Duke might be finished. The Blue Devils will absolutely still make the tournament, but any thoughts of a second consecutive national championship will go up in smoke.
If he just misses a game or two, they might be OK. It's not an ideal long-term strategy—or even a great short-term one with Louisville's ball-hawking defense on deck—but something along the lines of 38 minutes per game for the starting five (which now once again includes Kennard)—and 10 minutes per game for Chase Jeter strategically inserted throughout—could be feasible for a little while.
They certainly made it work for 32 minutes on Wednesday night, outscoring the Tar Heels, 50-45, after Jones went down for the count.
But if Duke needs to roll with that game plan for more than a week, it'll be running on the memory of fumes by the time the tournament begins.
So get well soon, Matt. (And Amile, for that matter.) Your brothers probably won't be able to tread water for very long without you.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.