BROOKLYN -- To get through a third meeting with their most bitter of rivals, North Carolina's two seniors resorted to battlefield experience to guide their team to the finish line.
Owners of a 16-point lead with 5:33 to play in their Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinal, the question surrounding the Tar Heels was not one of whether they would win and play for a championship Saturday, but rather one of how much the final margin on the scoreboard would ultimately be, until a 13-0 run turned a nearly insurmountable cushion into a tenuous three-point advantage.
But with one last defensive stand, a veteran instinct to take a charge, and a championship fortitude, UNC pushed through, surviving one final Duke rally Friday to score a 74-69 victory at the expense of the Blue Devils at Barclays Center.
"We ended up making mistakes instead of just continuing to be aggressive," Joel Berry II -- one of five Tar Heels with double-digit point outputs in the win -- said of a stretch run that saw a near-perfect game teeter on the edge of being squandered. "In situations like that, we've just got to keep playing and just remember that we can't stop being aggressive. At that time, that's what we did, and that's why we made the game so close."
"The bottom line is we made enough plays," head coach Roy Williams added as UNC (25-9) advanced to its sixth ACC championship game in eight years. "We're still playing, so I'm happy."
The sixth-seeded Tar Heels atoned for their sluggish start Thursday against Miami by jumping on the accelerator early, beginning the game with a 16-3 run over the initial seven minutes of the first half and holding Duke (26-7) to just one field goal in that stretch. The Blue Devils would soon hit their stride, however, ripping off a 12-2 run to draw within three points following a three-pointer by Grayson Allen with 7:01 to play in the opening stanza. The defending national champions would open their advantage back up to seven points before an 8-0 Duke spurt, capped by Marvin Bagley III's go-ahead basket, put the second-seeded Blue Devils ahead by a 27-26 margin. It would be the last lead Mike Krzyzewski's unit would enjoy on this night, though, as a Berry three on the ensuing possession put the Tar Heels in front to stay.
The remainder of the half was not without its share of controversy, as Allen inadvertently created more controversy in the final minute before the intermission when the senior appeared to hip-check freshman forward Garrison Brooks while falling back into a defensive stance seconds after a Kenny Williams basket. Upon official review, Allen was assessed a flagrant-1 foul, giving UNC two free throws and possession of the basketball in an exchange that the Tar Heel players dismissed before Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski came to Allen's defense in his postgame press conference.
"That was another foul in the game," the NCAA's winningest all-time coach bristled, getting in front of a question initially intended for Allen. "If you look in the low post, that's going on all the time. It happened at half court, they got it, it's done. That didn't win or lose the game."
Undaunted, UNC took a 36-31 lead into the locker room at halftime and progressively built on it in the second half, finally gaining separation in the form of a 10-3 run when Luke Maye's jumper put the Tar Heels ahead by a 72-56 score with 5:33 remaining. Duke would not go quietly into the night at that juncture, as a three by Allen on the next trip down the floor started the Blue Devils' elusive run that continued as Bagley and Wendell Carter, Jr.; who combined for 33 points and 22 rebounds, pared the lead back down to nine points with 3:34 left in regulation.
Maye, whose 17 points and 10 rebounds led UNC, came up with a pair of clutch offensive rebounds in the next minute of action, tracking down long boards on errant three-point attempts by Cameron Johnson to reset the shot clock and prolong the Tar Heel advantage. Duke would ratchet up their defense at this point, however, as Allen proceeded to strip Pinson, and then following Carter's cleanup of a Gary Trent, Jr. layup, buried his fourth three of the night to draw the Blue Devils within six, at 72-66, with 1:47 on the clock.
UNC left the door open when Berry could not convert what would have been a dagger three-pointer, instead turning it over when Maye was pickpocketed by Trevon Duval with just under a minute to go. The freshman point guard then fed Trent beyond the arc, and the son of the former NBA player splashed a trifecta through the net to bring Duke to the doorstep, trailing by just three. The Blue Devils had two chances to tie the game and force overtime, but were denied when Williams drew a charge on Allen with 17.8 seconds to go. Their second opportunity came when Pinson lost the ball out of bounds six seconds later, but the senior amended his miscue by scooping up Allen's misfired three, and then sinking two free throws to seal the outcome.
"I made a big-time turnover that I needed to make up for," the charismatic Pinson admitted. "I'm going to be honest. I was like, 'You're making these two free throws. You just almost blew the game for your team, so you have to make them.' I went up to the line -- Coach was like, 'be big time, make the shot,' -- and I stepped up to it and knocked them in."
With the win, UNC moves on to face Virginia in the ACC championship for the second time in three years. The Tar Heels won the 2016 championship game in Washington, D.C. over the Cavaliers, but have been held under 50 points in both of the last two meetings with the No. 1 team in the nation, and recognize what needs to be remedied if a reversal of fortune is in order.
"We've got to play a heck of a lot better," a candid Roy Williams stated. "They're the No. 1 team unanimously, and they beat us by 77 points or whatever it was. So we've got to go in there and try to play the perfect game. If we try to play the perfect game and play as close as we can possibly play to that, then we'll have a chance to win."