Photo: Wendell Moore (C) celebrates his game-winner with teammates
CHAPEL HILL – The next time unranked North Carolina faces a Duke team rated in the Top 10, bank on the Tar Heels pulling off an upset. If they can make free throws, that is.
Struggling North Carolina was on the verge of shocking its historic Tobacco Road rival, but sub-.50-percent free throw shooting down the stretch cost the Tar Heels a 13-point second-half lead and five-point overtime advantage, ultimately resulting in a 98-96 overtime loss Saturday night at the Dean E. Smith Center.
If the Tar Heels had hit just 6-of-12 free throws – instead of 5-of-12 in the final 3:40 of regulation – they would have avoided an 84-84 tie forcing OT. If they had made just 4-of-6 free throws (66.7 percent) in the five-minute OT – instead of 3-of-6 – they would have finished off the Blue Devils.
Such an upset would have been added to the shelf alongside North Carolina's 2014 shocker the last time one of the two were unranked. On Feb. 20, 2014, unranked North Carolina pulled off an eight-point victory over then-No. 5 Duke.
Instead, seventh-ranked Duke (20-3, 10-2 ACC) stole this one from the Tar Heels (10-13, 3-9 ACC).
Duke’s prime pickpocket was sophomore point guard Tre Jones. His 28 points, six assists and three steals drove the comeback from a 77-64 deficit with 4:16 to play in regulation and a 96-91 deficit with 20.9 seconds remaining in OT.
“Tre had his best game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He was magnificent. Not only his scoring, but how he willed our team to win.”
Ironically, Jones beat North Carolina with a magic touch on two missed free throws – one purposely.
With 4.4 seconds left in regulation and Duke trailing 84-81, Jones stepped to the line for two free throws. North Carolina had fouled him to prevent a game-tying three-point field goal attempt. Jones made the first to make it a two-point game.
Then, with everyone in the house of 21,500 expecting him to miss the second free throw intentionally to force a rebound and basket opportunity, Jones didn’t allow anyone to get set for the miss. When the referee handed him the ball, he shot immediately.
The ball ricocheted off the front of the rim over his right shoulder. He retrieved it, dribbled back to the free throw circle and scored the tying basket on a 16-foot jumper as time expired.
“The intentional (missed) free threw is something (assistant coach Jon) Scheyer and I have talked about and worked on a lot in the gym,” Jones said. “We knew we’d be in that position. When we were, I took a couple steps to the right and fired at the rim. I kind of knew how it was going to come off the rim. I went after it and trusted my mid-range shot.”
Next, with 6.6 seconds remaining overtime and Duke trailing 96-94, Jones was again fouled on a drive to the basket. He made the first free throw, but this time he wanted to tie the score with the second free throw. When his miss bounced away, teammate Wendell Moore kept the rebound alive.
“Wendell Moore was able to go up and tip the ball out,” Jones said. “Jordon Goldwire saved as it was going out of bounds and saved it to me. I put up a look and Wendell went after it. He was able to get a huge put back.”
That was the difference another. And Jones etched his name in the annals of the historic rivalry.
“Tre was at another level tonight,” Coach K said. “We won because of that kid. I thought anything he did might work. He was so good at timeouts. We're trying to get him to talk more and his talk was positive: ‘We’re going to win. We’ve got this. You can count on me.’ The kids responded to him.
In another irony, in the NCAA Tournament last season, Duke's R.J. Barrett attempted to intentionally miss a free throw when the Blue Devils trailed Michigan State by two points with five seconds remaining. When Barrett missed the first one, instead of intentionally missing the second one, the ball hit the back of the rim, bounced up and fell through the net. Michigan State won the Elite Eight game 68-67.
North Carolina’s upset hopes were pinned on the ability freshman center Armando Bacot and senior power forward Garrison Brooks double-teaming Duke center Vernon Carey, a leading candidate for ACC Player of the Year and a national player of the year contender.
There were mixed results.
Carey finished the first half with 18 points on 6-of-7 shooting from short range and 6-of-7 from the free throw line. That included converting two three-point plays out of three opportunities. Without Carey, North Carolina's 44-35 halftime lead would have been larger.
But Carey tired in the second half and fouled out without adding to his 18 points. He was 0-of-5 in the second half.
Brooks finished with 18 points and five rebounds and Bacot with 12 and seven boards, while freshman guard Cole Anthony led the Tar Heels with 24 points and four assists. He was playing his third game after arthroscopic knee surgery for cartilage damage forced him to miss the previous 11.
North Carolina also had strong play from its bench. Christian Keeling scored 13 points and Justin Pierce 11.
“I’m not disappointed in our team effort,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “We could have played more intelligently, made more free throws, rebounded more of their free throws and all of the things that people will talk about. We also could have made some plays that would have been better in the first half. You have to congratulate them. If you don’t care who won the game you had to enjoy it as big-time college basketball game. I care. So I did not enjoy the outcome.”
In that costly 5-of-12 free throw collapse, Andrew Platek was 1-of-4, Brooks 0-of-2, Leaky Black 1-of-2 and Anthony 3-of-4.
For the record on free throws for the night, Duke was 26-of-34 (76.5 percent) and North Carolina 21-of-38 (55.3 percent).
North Carolina was playing its eighth starting lineup with the latest setback in an injury riddled season. Senior point guard Brandon Robins missed his second straight game since suffered an injury late in last week’s loss to Boston College. He is out indefinitely.
North Carolina honored Joel Berry’s at halftime by hanging his No. 2 jersey in the Dean Dome rafters among other illustrious Tar Heels. Williams remained on the court for a moment to introduce Berry to the crowd and thank him before he went to the locker room.
Berry was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2017 Final Four when North Carolina won the national title. He was an All-ACC player his junior and senior years.
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