Bob Holliday

One to go in Brooklyn

Posted March 11

— North Carolina nearly put Duke out of business at the Barclays Center a couple of times.

The Tar Heels’ Kennedy Meeks established himself inside early and often. Meeks scored eight of the Tar Heels’ first 10 points and powered his team to an early 21-13 lead. With Joel Berry pushing the pace, and Mike Krzyzewski worrying to himself that Carolina might wear his team out, Grayson Allen came off the bench hoping to give his team some energy.

“Once I see the first one go in and I get another open one, I just keep shooting,” Allen said.

And shoot he did. With his mere presence on the floor ratcheting up the decibel levels at the Barclays both for and against, Allen poured in three consecutive three-point shots. Each buried trifecta brought louder and louder cheers from the Duke fans, and served to quiet his critics on the other side. North Carolina’s first half offensive muscle was so powerful the Tar Heels still pushed their lead to 13 points. But Allen hit a fourth three-point shot to keep the margin from getting worse.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski had said after Allen’s poor performance against Clemson Wednesday “We’ve got to get him going.”

Friday night, Krzyzewski acknowledged that Allen had regained his timing and rhythm-just in time: “If he doesn't do what he does in the first half, we're down by 20,” Krzyzewski said. “I mean, we could get blown out. I thought he saved us in the first half. It was almost a third round knockout, you know, without him playing the way he did.”

Jayson Tatum keyed a late first half surge by the Blue Devils to cut the margin to seven by halftime, but with North Carolina dominating in the paint and shooting 56 percent -- both Meeks and Isaiah Hicks had already scored in double figures by halftime -- Duke’s closing burst did little more than keep the Blue Devils in contention.

After intermission, even with Justin Jackson struggling from the field for the fourth consecutive game, the Tar Heels reclaimed their double-digit lead. A put-back by Meeks pushed the margin to 13 for the second time at 61-48. Yet Duke, which overcame a 12-point deficit Thursday against Louisville, managed to construct another remarkable rally against a higher seeded opponent.

Jayson Tatum answered Meeks’ basket with a fast break dunk. At 61-50 Krzyzewski quickly called time out, partly to give his team a quick rest, but also to try to plant the seeds of another comeback:

“Let's go,” Krzyzewski told his team. “Let's try to make a charge now.”

Allen ran down a long rebound and quickly fed Luke Kennard, who hit a three-point shot and got fouled -- a four-point play. Coach K would say later that was the play of the game for Duke. Allen hit two free throws and a trey, Kennard hit two free throws, and just like that the Blue Devils had tied the game.

Berry drew his fourth foul with 15:04 left in the game and rode the bench for more than 10 minutes. Berry could only watch when, at one stretch, Duke outscored North Carolina 20-4. But for UNC’s Roy Williams the Tar Heels’ loss of the lead went far beyond Berry’s long absence.

“I think our offense stopped moving,” Williams said in answer to a reporter’s question. “They picked us up a little bit in the backcourt. We wasted some time in the backcourt getting it down. We really did stop moving. When we had shots, I remember a couple of them, I think we rushed them a little bit, forced them a little bit.”

Nate Britt, playing in Berry’s place, tried to keep getting the ball inside to Meeks and Hicks, and once took the ball to the basket himself on a nifty drive for a three-point play. But as Kennard and Frank Jackson gave Duke its first lead of the second half and then pushed that lead to five points, the Tar Heels suddenly found it difficult to score. Carolina came away empty on five of six trips down the floor and soon the Heels were the ones battling just to remain in contention.

At 82-73 with just over two minutes to go, UNC turned almost exclusively to the three ball to keep hope alive. But Duke, which is known for shooting the three (59 percent against the Tar Heels), can also defend the three.

“Duke likes to take three-point shots on the offensive end, so I feel like they do a very good job of defending it,” Britt said. “They apply a lot of ball pressure on the perimeter.”

North Carolina shot just 5-22, 23 percent, from beyond the arc against Duke.

“I think they're accustomed to how people get threes. That's their territory,” Duke’s Krzyzewski suggested.

The Duke coach won’t quarrel with the notion this team is much better at defending the three-point shot than the two-point shot.

“They know how to score from it, and they know how to defend it,” Krzyzewski observed. “You are who you are, you know. We can't defend inside as well, but on the perimeter we have really good players.”

All four of Duke’s top perimeter players enjoyed big nights. Tatum poured in 24, Kennard added 20, Allen 18 and Jackson 15. The Carolina coach saw a huge contrast between Duke’s offense and his own.

“We shoot 28 percent in the second half, they shoot 59 percent because they got better movement, better screens, better shots than we did.”

Meeks and Hicks led the Tar Heels with 19 points. Jackson scored 16 but connected on just 6 of 22 from the field. Berry, playing just 24 minutes due to the foul trouble, scored 10.

North Carolina in the Roy Williams era rarely loses leads, but Williams rarely calls time outs when the leads do slip away. He acknowledged again that time out philosophy can be open to debate, but he believes (as his mentor Dean Smith believed) that time outs should be saved for the end of the game-just in case:

“Kids have to be able to handle adversity, and that's the reason we practice,” Williams noted.”We've had some great comebacks when I've had time-outs left at the end. I've seen some games on TV yet this year when games were lost when coaches wished they had a time-out. I don't ever want to coach us out of a game.”

North Carolina has not beaten Duke in the ACC Tournament since 1998 when All America Antawn Jamison, who ironically was in the building as one of the 15 Legends being honored this weekend by the ACC, led the Tar Heels to an 83-68 victory. And though the Tar Heels just defeated their arch rival last Saturday in Chapel Hill, there was plenty of post-game frustration to go around on the Carolina side, to be spread among players and their coach.

"We talked about playing without fouling, and we took -- we talked about getting the ball inside," Williams said. "We take a quick three. We take a bad shot. They run out on the break because somebody doesn't get back, and then we foul the guy as he's laying it up. That's not very smart. We talked about those things a great deal, but I didn't do a good enough job with it. I really didn't."

The top-seeded Tar Heels were chasing the elusive ACC “Double Double,” trying to win both the regular season and the league tournament in back to back seasons. No ACC team has been able to claim both titles since the North Carolina teams of 2007 and 2008. The quest to achieve this feat again in 2016 and 2017 ended Friday night.

Now Duke is the team chasing history. The Blue Devils will play Notre Dame coached by former Duke assistant Mike Brey. The Irish built a 16-point halftime lead against Florida State, then withstood a second half Seminole surge to win 77-73. Notre Dame, as the No. 3 seed, earned a double bye in this tournament and will play just its third game in Brooklyn tomorrow night. Duke as the No. 5 seed, will play for the fourth consecutive night. No team has ever won the ACC Tournament playing four consecutive nights. And of course no fifth seeded team has ever won this event now in its 64th year. But Duke, after staging dramatic comeback wins against arguably the two best teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference during the regular season, now has momentum. To put it mildly.

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