No. 19 North Carolina saw a second-half lead vanish, again, and No. 3 Duke was the more poised, more polished team down the stretch, again. The regular-season finale – and rematch – between the Tar Heels and Blue Devils played out like the first time they played, though without with captivating late drama.
There wasn’t much of that on Saturday night at the Smith Center in the final moments of Duke's 84-77 victory. By then, the Blue Devils had long taken control, and did so with a surge in the middle of the second half from which the Tar Heels never fully recovered.
UNC had a chance to make it interesting, at least, with time running out in the final minute. The Tar Heels trailed by five points and had possession. But Duke forced a turnover - UNC’s 11th of the second half -- and Duke point guard Tyus Jones, who’d left the game earlier with back spasms, made a pair of free throws to put Duke ahead by seven again.
UNC led by seven points, twice, early on in the second half – extending the lead both times on Marcus Paige 3-pointers – but each time the Blue Devils responded. During Duke's second comeback from down seven Jones, the freshman point guard, penetrated the UNC defense and made a layup to cut UNC's lead to one.
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Jones fell to the court after the play, though, and spent several moments laying on the court. He left the game with about 13 minutes to play and returned a few minutes later.
Less than a minute after Jones left the game, Duke took a 53-51 lead on a Matt Jones 3-pointer. It was the Blue Devils' first lead since 6 minutes, 14 seconds remained in the first half.
Then Grayson Allen, a freshman guard who scored 27 points in a victory against Wake Forest earlier in the week, then made a 3 to give Duke a 56-51 lead with 11 minutes, 20 seconds to play.
From there UNC three times cut Duke's lead to one. Each time, the Blue Devils responded: first with a Quinn Cook jumper, and then with layups from Jahlil Okafor on consecutive possessions.
Duke's role players, Matt Jones and Allen, emerged to turn the game in the Blue Devils' favor. Their stars – Quinn Cook and Jahlil Okafor in particular – helped the Blue Devils retain control.
Cook gave Duke a nine-point lead, its largest of the second half to that point, with a 3-pointer with 6 minutes 19 seconds to play. That shot came moments after a Tyus Jones 3, and right after a Tar Heels' turnover.
Those have been problematic throughout the season for UNC, and were again on Saturday. UNC at one point committed three turnovers in in less than two minutes, and Duke extended its lead during that stretch from three to nine points with 5 ½ minutes to play.
From there, UNC never cut Duke's lead to less than five points. The Tar Heels came that close first with a Paige 3 with 45 seconds remaining. That shot was UNC’s first attempt from the field in about 2 ½ minutes. The Tar Heels came no closer.
Duke, led by 24 points from Tyus Jones and 20 from Cook, ended the regular season with 11 consecutive victories and will be the No. 2 seed in the ACC tournament, which begins next week. UNC, led by Paige’s 23 points - 17 of which came in the second half - will be the tournament’s fifth seed.
The Tar Heels still haven’t defeated Duke in consecutive games in the Smith Center since a seven-game home winning streak in the 1990s.