Tar Heels upset Duke in another classic

Theo Pinson vaulted onto a chair at the end of the North Carolina bench, stared into the sea of students and screamed, his voice drowned out by a deafening Smith Center crowd.

In a game full of monumental performances, his wasn't one of them. But his breakaway dunk with nine seconds left served as the punctuation mark in Thursday's 82-78 win over Duke, as the No. 21 Tar Heels shook a 12-point deficit and staved off the No. 9 Blue Devils' late rally.

Four players scored in double figures for UNC (18-7, 7-5 ACC), which led nearly the entire second half, and none topped Joel Berry's 21 points in his final home game against Duke. But North Carolina's biggest contributor was arguably Kenny Williams, who tied career highs with 20 points and six made threes — tying Hubert Davis's 1991 performance for the most threes by a Tar Heel against Duke.

Joel Berry (2) scored a game-high 21 points as Grayson Allen (3) finished with just nine points. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Joel Berry (2) scored a game-high 21 points as Grayson Allen (3) finished with just nine points. | Photo by Alex Kormann

The Blue Devils (19-5, 7-4 ACC) benefited from double-digit outputs from four of their freshmen, including a team-high 16 points from Gary Trent and a 15-point, 16-rebound outing from Marvin Bagley III, the nation's top prospect and a contender for national player of the year honors. But Grayson Allen — the team's lone senior — mustered just nine points on nine attempts, a typical bellwether for a Blue Devil loss.

Thursday's game was the first time in six meetings that North Carolina was ranked lower than Duke, which had won 13 of the past 18 meetings between the two. It looked like more of the same early on, as the visitors mounted a 40-28 lead with 6:31 left in the first half.

That's when the Tar Heels surged, riding a three-point onslaught from Williams and Cameron Johnson (18 points) to a 33-11 run spanning both halves. Those two combined for all seven of UNC's first-half threes and finished with a combined 10 threes, one more than Duke's total for the game.

Cameron Johnson (13) finished with 18 points, two more than Duke leading scorer Gary Trent (2) had in UNC's 82-78 win on Thursday. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Cameron Johnson (13) finished with 18 points, two more than Duke leading scorer Gary Trent (2) had in UNC's 82-78 win on Thursday. | Photo by Alex Kormann

That run gave North Carolina a 10-point lead, its largest of the game, before a Trent jumper stopped the bleeding and a Bagley dunk quieted the crowd minutes later. With just under five minutes left, two Trevon Duval free throws cut UNC's lead to 74-71.

But a Johnson three on a slick assist from Williams ended a cold spell for both teams and gave North Carolina a six-point cushion. It proved to be enough, as Duke never again came within one possession.

The Tar Heels ended with six more rebounds than the Blue Devils, who dominated the glass early behind top NBA prospects Bagley and Wendell Carter. That was thanks in large part to UNC's guards aggressively crashing the boards, as Johnson (13) and Pinson (seven) combined for nearly half of their team's rebounds. To his credit, Luke Maye added 18 points and eight rebounds of his own to bolster his ACC Player of the Year resume opposite Bagley.

Luke Maye (32) didn't have his best game, but his 15 points and eight rebounds were enough to bolster UNC's inside attack against Duke. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Luke Maye (32) didn't have his best game, but his 15 points and eight rebounds were enough to bolster UNC's inside attack against Duke. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Ultimately, for a Tar Heel team built along the perimeter, it was the inside game that decided the game. The Blue Devils added just eight points in the point after scoring 30 in the first half, and North Carolina grabbed 11 more rebounds than Duke in the final 20 minutes. And, finally, the Tar Heels held an opponent to fewer than 10 made threes for the first time since a Jan. 20 win over Georgia Tech.

On Thursday, it all added up to a win that felt inconceivable weeks ago and improbable at tip. But 15 more shot attempts and just two turnovers, a record low for UNC, gave North Carolina the volume it needed to outlast a loaded Duke squad.

The Tar Heels don't get much time to recover, as they head to Raleigh on Saturday with a chance to avenge a Jan. 27 loss at home to N.C. State. Then, it's a home tilt with Notre Dame on Monday, marking UNC's first stretch of three ACC games in five days since 1991.

It's a crucial opportunity for North Carolina to climb up the conference standings, though its January struggles likely erased any chances of extending its ACC regular-season championship streak to three seasons. With seven losses, its chances of defending its NCAA championship seem unlikely, too.

The final dunk from Theo Pinson (1) was the exclamation on UNC's wild win Thursday over Duke. | Photo by Alex Kormann

The final dunk from Theo Pinson (1) was the exclamation on UNC's wild win Thursday over Duke. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Still, this win was a start to restoring hope in another title run, especially over a Duke team that's flirted with the top five for most of the season. It might not matter if UNC falters in its trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 3, or if it drops any of the five games before then, or if it falls flat in the subsequent ACC Tournament.

But it mattered Thursday — you could see it in Pinson's eyes, and you could hear it through the roar of the Smith Center crowd. Against Duke, it always does.

@CJacksonCowart

Photos by Alex Kormann