Four minutes into the latest chapter in the Duke-North Carolina rivalry, it looked like the game was headed for a Blue Devils blowout.
Not so fast, said the Tar Heels with their deeper rotation of reserves.
And then, after 40 minutes – it wasn’t enough. Five more minutes, one period of overtime, were needed to decide the victor.
In the end, No. 4 Duke did win, 92-90, just as it first appeared destined. The way the game played out though, was much more riveting.
With the score knotted at 81, a second jump ball was tossed at midcourt. The overtime period followed the script that proceeded it, just in condensed form – both teams traded baskets as any type of separation, no matter how small, proved temporary.
The No. 15 Tar Heels lost Brice Johnson, and his 18 points and 12 rebounds, on the third possession of overtime, as he fouled out.
A Matt Jones steal led to a Jahlil Okafor and-one finish for Duke – and the big man tilted his head back and screamed as his teammates surrounded him.
Working with a rolled left ankle from earlier in the game, Okafor missed the free throw, but Duke still had an 84-83 lead, its first of overtime. A Justin Jackson’s miss from 3-point range set up Okafor from the line again – two more misses, leaving him 0-for-6 for the game.
Two baskets for the Tar Heels, the second in transition – a phase of the game the deeper Tar Heels dominated from the second half to the close – gave UNC an 87-84 lead, its largest of overtime.
But Duke wasn’t done. A spinning-to-the-ground layup from Tyus Jones cut the lead, and then one from Quinn Cook gave it back to Duke at 88-87.
Another lead change, the fourth of the overtime, ensued, and it was an Okafor in-close layin that gave Duke the 90-89 lead. The Blue Devils were then able to milk clock thanks to a Matt Jones offensive rebound, leading to a UNC timeout with 31.8 seconds left, shot clock off, Duke ball.
Cook made one ensuing free throw, giving Duke a two-point lead. J.P Tokoto missed a 10-foot jump shot from the left corner, giving the Blue Devils back possession with 5.2 seconds left, and the Tar Heels squatted at the other end with heads down, waiting for the formality of more free throws.
The teams started the game by taking a knee and embracing in a circle around halfcourt for a few moments of silence in honor of Dean Smith. Then Duke put on a show.
The first run of play before the media timeout was all Blue Devils, as four of Duke starters scored and Tyus Jones racked up three assists. Justise Winslow, who has struggled to hit jump shots all season, nailed a turnaround jumper.
Amile Jefferson drove to the basket, and Cook started raining 3s. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s Marcus Paige had two fouls before the game was five minutes old.
At the 14:26 mark of the first, Duke had a 12-point lead, 20-8, and all the momentum, but the Tar Heels didn’t fold.
Unlikely contributions from reserves Nate Britt and Joel James kept UNC within striking distance, and the Tar Heels kept chipping away until a James layin off of an offensive rebound trimmed Duke’s lead to 40-36. Dunks from Tokoto and Isaiah Hicks gave UNC important surges of momentum.
Then near-disaster struck for the Blue Devils.
The building fell silent as Okafor landed awkwardly on James’ foot after a shot attempt, and Duke’s prized big man fell to the floor. He didn’t get up as coach Mike Krzyzewski and the trainers came over. Okafor briefly went to the locker room with a left ankle sprain, then returned late in the half.
After Okafor’s return, back-to-back 3s by Cook and Matt Jones made it a 49-36 Duke lead. In the final 2:18, UNC cut that lead to seven, ending the half with a second Tokoto slam.
The Tar Heels found two great runs in the second half, A reverse two-handed slam by Tokoto gave them their first lead, at 54-53, with 15:17 left, part of a 13-0 run.
Later, the Tar Heels went on 9-0 run, as a Hicks layin gave UNC a 70-62 lead with 6:17 left. A Tyus Jones 3 looked like it could be the start of something special for Duke, but Joel Berry immediately answered at the other end with one of his own.
The Tar Heels consistently beat Duke in transition in the second half, with a hobbled Okafor and Tyus Jones visibly gassed at times. Meanwhile, UNC’s rotation continued to go nine deep, with rested legs consistently entering the game.
It was a 77-67 lead for UNC with 3:50 left. Duke mounted one more attempt, an 11-2 run, with nine points from Tyus Jones, to tie the score at 81, forcing more of the greatest rivalry in college sports.