Quick Summary: The Duke Blue Devils overcame a terrible first half, 17 turnovers and consistent foul trouble to defeat hated-rival North Carolina, 73-68.
The one rule of the Duke-UNC rivalry that has always been understood is that resumes, rankings, and standings mean nothing when the Blue Devils and Tar Heels take the court. So, regardless of the fact that we had a No. 2 ranked Duke team taking the floor against an unranked and unimpressive North Carolina team, it was safe to assume the Blue Devils would be in for a bit of a challenge.
The bit of a challenge they received, however, was large enough to leave Duke fans feeling a little uncomfortable for a large portion of the game. Before we go and give too much credit to North Carolina, I have to point out that Duke played a much larger role in Duke’s problems than the Tar Heels did.
The Blue Devils opened up the game with a lot energy; almost too much energy, in fact. They spent the first five or so minutes running around at a million miles an hour, typically resulting in a turnover or poor shot attempt. On defense, they played a far too aggressive style, fleeing to the ball handler and leaving a backdoor cut or shooter on the wing wide open on numerous occasions. Even worse, they received one of the lazier efforts of the season from Mason Plumlee, who was often caught looking on as UNC made easy layups and dunks and pulled in an absurd amount of offensive rebounds.
It all resulted in a 28-18 deficit at the 6:43 mark in the first half. No one was considering the hitting of the panic button, but we certainly started to take it out of the drawer.
Just like they did against Boston College, though, Duke began fighting through their struggles, turning up the hustle and leaning on point guards Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton, who provided valuable contributions on both the offense and defensive ends, to cut into North Carolina’s lead before halftime.
It wasn’t pretty, but Duke had the deficit down to 33-29 by halftime.
Fortunately, the second half saw the return of the Blue Devils we’ve come to know this season. After UNC clung desperately to their slowly shrinking lead in the early stages of the second half, Duke eventually found themselves back on top on a deep Seth Curry three-pointer. North Carolina would regain the lead briefly on the next possession, but a phenomenal cross-court pass from Tyler Thornton to Quinn Cook followed by a Rasheed Sulaimon three-pointer pushed Duke’s lead to four, and the Blue Devils would never relinquish it the rest of the way.
While the lead would never get higher than eight, Duke was in complete control. Mason Plumlee, who struggled with foul trouble and poor play for the first two-thirds of the game, bounced back and put together a fine performance down the stretch, manning up on the boards and returning to form as an offensive weapon, sinking all four of his free throws down the stretch and finishing the game with 18 points.
All that really matters is that Duke won this game. I can’t give you a reason for Duke’s struggles early on. Perhaps they were too pumped up for the biggest game of the season. Maybe they still felt a little off after their absurd performance at Boston College. Maybe they celebrated Coach K’s birthday by having a pool party and were feeling a little drained. I don’t know what happened.
I’m not much of a fan of cliche quotes, but they’re cliche for a reason: they hold true over an endless amount of situations. As it turns out, a Duke-UNC game on a typical Wednesday night turned out to be one these endless amounts of situations. Our cliche quote of the day? ‘Its not about how you start, it is about how you finish.’
Duke’s start to this game was a train-wreck. At one point, I was fully prepared to confidently state that they looked worse in the early stages of this game than they did at Miami. That was right before they began to turn it around a little, but it certainly paints a picture of how ugly of a first half we were treated to.
But, for the second straight game, they turned it around and scrapped out a win. These are the games that last year’s team wasn’t capable of winning: the ones where you have to claw and fight and overcome adversity to pick up the victory. While we could choose to look at how badly Duke performed in these past two games as a negative and say this team is a little off-track, I choose to view it as a positive. This team has showed it can take a punch in the mouth and still manage to bounce back and that is the kind of persistence you need in the tournament.
Yes, this was as sloppy and unimpressive of a win as you can imagine, but it was still a win. In the zany world of college basketball where the TCU’s of the world are knocking off the Kansas’s of the world on a nightly basis, you learn to take the win, shut up, and move on.
Happy Birthday, Coach K.