Short-handed Duke steals a victory against No. 5 North Carolina

Brice Johnson played so well, but UNC couldn’t close against Duke. A stunner. (USATSI)

Another terrific chapter in the Duke-North Carolina rivalry was written on Wednesday night.

And honestly, Mike Krzyzewski might eventually see this win as one of his sweetest — and most unexpected — ever against his rival. No. 20 Duke kept itself close the entire game, and in the end, wound up upsetting fifth-ranked UNC 74-73.

More than 21,000 inside the Dean Smith Center walked out stunned. In the closing minutes, though, UNC was asking for it. The Tar Heels flirted with fire and continually kept a short-handed Duke team within striking distance. Roy Williams’ team was burned. Brice Johnson had another great game, but if you can believe it, a 29-point, 18-rebound performance could hinder his All-American status because it came in a loss and because Johnson was so good early (27 points and 17 rebounds in the first 28 minutes), then so poor late.

Was Johnson hurt? He seemed to be favoring his wrist some. He only had two points in the final 10 minutes. UNC’s inability to go inside to Johnson and, to a certain extent, Kennedy Meeks, made matters worse. Marshall Plumlee had four fouls hanging around his neck down the stretch but he was seldom paid attention to.

UNC twice had a chance to take the lead in the final minute. Meeks was blocked by Luke Kennard on the Tar Heels’ penultimate possession, and then, after Williams opted not to call a timeout, Tar Heel sophomore Joel Berry had his shot deflected by Duke freshman Derryck Thornton. Duke’s Grayson Allen grabbed the rebound, flung the ball into the air, a convoy of Blue Devils celebrated and rushed their coach in the closing seconds of a stunning victory.

“I think this is the best game we played this year,” Brandon Ingram said on ESPN afterward.

Ingram had a stellar game for Duke, scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.

Reports from the postgame press conference have Williams admitting he should have called timeout. It was a blunder, and in the aftermath of this game many are saying Krzyzewski totally out-coached Williams. This was K’s sixth win in the last seven meetings against Ol’ Roy.

You can hear the Duke elation in this video from the Dean Dome’s hallways, courtesy of the Fayetteville Observer’s Stephen Schramm.

It was all the more surprising considering the Blue Devils lost starting shooting guard Matt Jones in the first half to a left-ankle injury. He logged just nine minutes.

This is the first time Duke has won four straight against UNC since 2003-05. The images of Duke celebrating on UNC’s court are enough to light white-hot hatred among the fan base to last another hundred years. Total glee for the visiting team, while the home fans just latched their hands to their heads and tried to interpret how their favored team gifted the game to the enemy.

And now, because of this outcome, the ACC chase is even tighter. UNC entered the night with a two-game lead on Duke, but now six teams are within a game of the top of the standings. Wednesday night saw more chaos rain on a college basketball season that has been nothing but a coal-raking for ranked teams. No. 4 Iowa got got at Penn State, and No. 3 Oklahoma also fell on the road againt Texas Tech.

Two elongated, closing takeaways from me here:

No. 1: Yes, it’s an incredible win by Duke. The most impressive we’ve seen from this team this season. Think about where the Devils were three weeks ago. A 15-6 squad off to its worst start (4-4) in ACC play in two decades. But now Coach K’s club has reeled off five straight wins and has knocked off Louisville, Virginia and UNC in the process.

Business is good. The outlook on Duke’s season has changed. But I don’t necessarily think this team should suddenly be considered among the three or four most likely to win a title. The reigning champs are still plenty flawed, like everyone else populating the polls this season. Matt Jones, a starter, could be out for a good while here; that ankle injury is not looking good, Krzyzewski said. And Amile Jefferson might not return this season. Duke is operating with six players, basically. It’s offensively pulling it together, and Ingram is just a stud. But I don’t believe this is one of the five best teams in the country right now, no way. If Jones goes down for three or four weeks, buy big on Duke at your own peril.

No. 2: Although I won’t overreact in a positive way to Duke, I might do some of the opposite with UNC. This is a dejecting loss. The tape is going to be hellish for Heels players and coaches to go over. UNC should have won this game by double digits. It’s so dispiriting, even though the Tar Heels have all those seniors and all that talent, I can’t talk myself into picking this team to win the national championship. There have been too many slip-ups, and while Brice Johnson will be a Second Team All-American at worst, the collective here is not playing up to its potential. That’s been a critique of a few of Williams’ teams in recent years.

The pieces are there but UNC is not clicking. And the resume isn’t helping. This team’s best wins have come against Maryland at home, and Florida State and Syracuse on the road. It has the build of a 1 seed and the results of a No. 4. It can’t just be Johnson. Meeks has to be better. Paige has to be in command. The thought was long held that UNC would be a top-five team start to finish this season. It’s struggled to maintain top-10 status in the weakest year atop the polls maybe ever.

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