College Basketball

Dean Smith Tribute sets tone, Duke-UNC game lives up to it

Whatever anyone remembers about this particular installment of the rivalry between Duke and North Carolina, it may end with their first overtime in 11 years – and include J.P. Tokoto’s dunks and Tyus Jones’ late heroics – but it will begin before the game even began Wednesday.

More than a week before the game began, even, this meeting coming only 10 days after Dean Smith’s death. It’s impossible to overstate his importance to the success both teams have enjoyed for a generation; Smith did much of the heavy lifting in elevating this rivalry to the lofty status it enjoys today, with Mike Krzyzewski finishing the job.

And it was in Smith’s memory that players, coaches and staff from both teams kneeled around the center circle during a moment of silence before the national anthem, Roy Williams and Krzyzewski arm in arm.

Cameron Indoor Stadium, as loud both before and after as it always is when North Carolina is in the building, was utterly still.

It was a truly stirring moment, one that encapsulated the two-sidedness of this rivalry, especially with a few fans wearing “DEAN” shirts, more than 1,600 of which were sold in collaboration between a former Duke mascot and a pro-Carolina apparel line.

That’s half of what this rivalry is about. Basketball is the other half, the preferred means of combat, and what Duke and North Carolina delivered measured up to the standard set by the tribute to Smith, with both teams holding double-digit leads before Duke finally won in overtime, 92-90.

Jones finished with 22 points and eight assists, the freshman who has been at his best in big games willing the Blue Devils to victory in the final minutes of the second half and overtime.

No one gave the Tar Heels much of a chance after their dismal defensive performance Saturday in Pittsburgh – and certainly not after the opening few minutes, when Duke did just about everything but escort the Tar Heels from the building – but North Carolina rode the momentum of three massive Tokoto dunks to take the lead early in the second half.

The three Tokoto dunks are worth cataloging individually. They were that good.

One: Late in the first half, a high-flying, old-school tomahawk. North Carolina was still down seven at that point.

Two: A two-handed putback slam in the final seconds before halftime, throwing down a Joel Berry miss to keep the Tar Heels within seven at the half, 49-42.

Three: A two-handed reverse slam that gave North Carolina its first lead early in the second half, 54-53.

From the point where Jahlil Okafor landed awkwardly on Joel James’ foot, injuring his left ankle, the Tar Heels scored 18 of the next 31 points, capped by Tokoto’s third dunk. North Carolina would eventually run its lead to as many as 10 with less than four minutes to play before Duke whittled away at it.

The Tar Heels finished with 56 points in the paint as Duke’s interior defense proved unable to stop penetration or Kennedy Meeks or Brice Johnson inside, especially with Okafor hobbled.

But Duke would not be deterred, and Jones in particular. He accounted for the final seven of Duke’s points during a late 11-2 run, making a pair of free throws before drawing contact from Joel Berry for an and-one and tying the score at 81 with a layup that would end up sending the game to overtime when Marcus Paige’s final 3-point attempt went awry, shadowed as he was for the entire night by Quinn Cook.

And it fell, at the end of overtime, to Cook to hit a free throw with 5.2 seconds left that secured the win. His night ended in victory. It began with his arm around Williams, kneeling together in honor of a coach who would surely have approved the quality of competition, if not the result.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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