Saturday, March 11, 2017

UNC watches 13-point lead evaporate as Duke advances to ACC title game

Joel Berry II's reaction to a missed layup late in second half was a microcosm of North Carolina's night as Tar Heels could not protect 13-point lead, losing to Duke in ACC Tournament semifinals. (Photo by David Welker/Atlantic Coast Conference, used with official permission)

BROOKLYN -- Up 13 points against their bitter adversary, North Carolina looked for all the world like a team ticketed to a third consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.

The Tar Heels had dominated Duke for the first 26 minutes of their semifinal matchup, feeding their interior tandem of Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks at such a consistent rate that the shorter and thinner Blue Devils had a hard time keeping up with the athletically superior and deeper UNC rotation.

Shortly thereafter, with his team in seemingly dire straits, Jayson Tatum; the biggest thorn in UNC's side during the first encounter between these two sworn enemies, made the veteran move of calling a timeout to rally the troops after a dunk that ultimately started a rally.

What followed was a rejuvenated squad showing the form that earned them a preseason No. 1 ranking in the nation, and validating their status as a legitimate contender for the greater payoff that lies ahead despite the hoopla that plagued them through the regular season.

Tatum's 24 points led four Duke players in double figures as the fifth-seeded Blue Devils closed the final 13:53 of regulation with a resounding 45-22 run, turning the game on its head and scoring a decisive 93-83 victory over regular-season ACC champion North Carolina in the de facto rubber match between the two at Brooklyn's Barclays Center after their home-and-home series produced a split in the win and loss columns.

"Our guys just fought," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said as Duke (26-8) overcame a 61-48 deficit with renewed confidence and a greater team dynamic down the stretch. "When we were down 13, Jayson got that dunk and called a timeout just to get rested. And then we just fought, and it worked out."

While the Blue Devils now advance to Saturday's conference championship game, where they will meet either Florida State or Notre Dame for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the sentiment in the locker room of the Tar Heels was that of one that got away, a downturn that began with point guard Joel Berry II being called for his fourth personal foul with 15:04 to play in regulation.

"I put the blame on me," Berry admitted, reduced to just 10 points after having to spend the majority of the second half tethered to the bench. "I'm the point guard of this team. I just wish I was able to be out there with them and help them compete, but it got taken away from me."

When asked if he would have preferred to return earlier than he actually did, the junior floor general offered an introspective response that hinted at the physical nature of Friday's contest, one in which Duke attempted 37 free throws to just 18 taken by UNC.

"Yeah, but you never know with how the game was going," he said. "I could have bumped somebody and they would have called a foul. That's just the way the game was going, and the coaches knew that. They were calling touch fouls."

Before Berry's fourth foul set the downward spiral in motion, UNC (27-7) was in control from the game's onset, taking full advantage of Duke down low as Meeks scored 10 of the Tar Heels' first 12 points to set the tone for a commanding 50-26 margin in the paint that went in UNC's favor. The Blue Devils would respond, bringing themselves within one just past the midpoint of the opening stanza after the third of three three-point field goals in 97 seconds by Grayson Allen, who checked into the game like a house afire. UNC then staked themselves out to their first double-digit advantage with a 12-1 run to offset Allen's barrage, and still managed to take a 49-42 lead to the locker room at halftime.

The Tar Heels began the second half as the aggressors, doubling Duke up with a 12-6 spurt to match their largest lead of the night, the aforementioned 61-48 cushion. The Blue Devils scored the next six points, on Tatum's dunk and a four-point play by Luke Kennard, who buried a three-pointer on the left wing off a feed from Allen and drew contact against Nate Britt to merit the foul. Hicks' dunk seconds later restored order briefly, but UNC was on the ropes and Duke capitalized, scoring nine straight points to tie the score at 63 with 10:21 on the clock in regulation. Just over a minute went by before the Blue Devils took their first lead, as a Frank Jackson trifecta gave them a slim 66-65 edge. Kennard's jumper after the Jackson go-ahead shot completed a 20-4 run for Duke, upping their newfound lead to three points.

The Tar Heels would regroup to tie the score at 70-all after Britt's conventional three-point play, but it was all Blue Devils from there, with an 11-2 run effectively putting the game away against a UNC team who came up empty on several occasions down the stretch, underscoring a final 20 minutes in which they shot just 29 percent from the floor.

"I think our offense stopped moving," head coach Roy Williams matter-of-factly stated. "We wasted some time in the backcourt getting it down."

"We'd run off a guy and leave a wide open three-point shooter in the corner a couple of times," he elaborated when breaking down UNC's second half maladies. "For us, our whole offense got stagnant, and our whole defense was bad."

In addition to Tatum's production, Duke also got 20 points from Kennard, 18 from Allen, and 15 from Jackson. Meeks led UNC with 19 points and 12 rebounds, but had only four points after halftime. Hicks had 19 points in his own right for the Tar Heels, with Jackson contributing 16 to what will enter the record book as a disheartening loss.

"It's disappointing," Williams ruefully conceded. "We didn't do what we practiced to do. We didn't do those kinds of things, and then we were not tough enough. I think the most disciplined, best-coached team, the most focused team is the one that won the game tonight. I didn't do as good a job as Mike did."

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