While Theo Pinson stood on one of the chairs on North Carolina’s bench, screaming to the students before him with a yell that somehow managed to rise above the ruckus, his equally happy teammates streamed past him off the court, jumping and dancing.
Mixed among the Tar Heels, briefly, were a few lost Duke players who nearly followed the victorious crowd off the floor and down North Carolina’s tunnel. On this first – and for many, last – visit to the Smith Center, some of the Blue Devils weren’t even sure how to get off the floor.
This rivalry will do that to you, especially on a night like Thursday, when the momentum sloshed back and forth in tidal flows, one way than the other. Duke got everything it wanted and more in the first half. As soon as things started going the other way, the Blue Devils could do nothing to stop it, no matter how much North Carolina tried to help.
“We have a three-point lead and missed about 77 shots in a row, it felt like,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said, his collar unbuttoned and tie at half-mast after the 82-78 win.
North Carolina may not be as good as it was last season, or the season before. This team has weaknesses where it usually has strengths, has lost games it most assuredly would have won in the immediate past. But the Tar Heels have been through this before, and even those among them who had not looked like they had – there is a difference between Cam Johnson doing this in his fourth year of college basketball and the Duke freshmen doing this in their first and only.
Mike Krzyzewski thought his team didn’t handle the big stage well on Feb. 3 at Madison Square Garden in the shocking loss to St. John’s, and this is an order of magnitude beyond that. The Duke coach said he didn’t think it was an issue Thursday, because it would have shown up early. But Duke couldn’t miss early, dictating play and making 10 shots in a row at one point. It was easy. Too easy, maybe.
When North Carolina made its run to start the second half – a 21-2 explosion that started with the last few possessions of the first half – the Blue Devils looked lost, awed and timid. The massive rebounding advantage Duke enjoyed with Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. evaporated as North Carolina outhustled the Blue Devils.
Point guard Trevon Duval struggled, forcing Duke to run its offense through Grayson Allen and taking away its lone senior’s opportunities to score. Allen finished with nine points and went 14 minutes between shots at one point while also struggling to defend Joel Berry.
Where’s Tyus Jones when you need him?
Duke has talent. There’s no question, no doubt about that. Amazing talent. Bagley had a pair of NBA-style swats at the rim in the second half, jaw-dropping stuff. But amassing talent and getting the most out of it from November to February to March are two different things.
A recent Slam Magazine story assessed Duke’s soon-to-be-outgoing first-round picks and incoming recruiting class and declared the Blue Devils are “on top of the college hoops world.” Maybe this is an old-fashioned viewpoint, but the games still count for something, especially this particular one. This isn’t fantasy basketball, where stats are all that matters. This isn’t dynasty mode.
You put four freshmen on this stage, no matter how ultra-talented they may be, and there’s no telling how they may react. They may struggle at the start, as Duke did in New York. They may struggle at the end, as Duke did at home against Virginia on Jan. 27. They may cruise on adrenaline until a little adversity hits, then collapse as Duke did Thursday. Or they may learn to savor the bright lights and rise to their best in those moments, as Jones and his 2015 teammates had figured out by now.
Thursday, the lights got too bright, too fast. North Carolina missed 16 of its final 18 shots – including Pinson’s attempt to posterize Bagley with a dunk that he shanked badly – and Duke still couldn’t close the gap. Krzyzewski went XXL at one point with Bagley and Carter and the surprisingly effective Marques Bolden all on the court together, to no avail. Kenny Williams even darted along the baseline to pluck a rebound out of Bagley’s hands.
“Just keep our poise, man,” Bagley said. I think we kind of started to rush things and had some turnovers and left them for open threes, and they executed on their stuff.”
But North Carolina, even when Duke couldn’t miss and even when the Tar Heels couldn’t do anything but miss, never lost its poise. Johnson didn’t miss a beat from start to finish. Kenny Williams, in only his second game against Duke, emerged fully from his slump with a 6-for-12 performance from 3-point range. Berry was a warrior, driving the ball at Allen, his former AAU teammate, over and over again until Allen finally rugby-tackled him in the lane.
And Pinson, who whiffed on what might have been the most spectacular UNC dunk in this rivalry since Jerry Stackhouse, still applied the final finish with a dunk in the final seconds.
Pinson has been through this. He knew what to expect. He knew what it takes to win. Experience is mean but efficient.
“Tonight was one of those nights where you know you’re going to miss this,” Pinson said. “Especially when you win. Everybody played well and everybody played together. This was a fun night.”
Duke’s unquestionably dazzling collection of raw talent still has a month to figure things out, but Thursday showed the Blue Devils aren’t ready for prime time yet. They’re not even sure how to exit the big stage, let alone play on it.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock