BROOKLYN, N.Y. — North Carolina found something it could do well against Duke and stuck with it for as long as it could Friday.
Then it hung on for dear life.
Unlike a week ago at Cameron Indoor Stadium when the Tar Heels couldn’t hold onto a 13-point second half lead in a regular season-ending loss to their arch-rival, this time they were able to build a big enough advantage late enough in the game to come away with a 74-69 victory at Barclays Center.
It was a victory that saw them go the final 5½ minutes without making a shot, a stretch in which they scored just two points. That turned out to be all they needed to win the season series against the Blue Devils and advance to their record 35th ACC tournament championship game appearance.
Coach Roy Williams’ sixth-seeded team will try to become only the second in the event’s 64-year history — and second straight — to earn the title by winning four games in as many days when it takes on top-seeded Virginia on Saturday.
“When they beat us over there seven days ago, I thought we were timid or tight or scared, you guys get to choose,” Williams said after UNC’s 100th ACC tournament victory, tying Duke for the most ever in the event. “I didn’t necessarily think we were that today. We were just sloppy. But the bottom line is that we made enough plays and we’re still playing. I’m happy.”
The biggest of those plays, at least in the context of Duke’s late run of 13 unanswered points that trimmed a 72-56 Tar Heel lead with 5:33 left down to just three in the final seconds, were the two free throws Theo Pinson hit to finally put the second-seeded Blue Devils away.
Over the first 34½ minutes, though, it was UNC’s ability to exploit the soft spot in the center of Duke’s 2-3 zone defense and turn it into uncontested jumpers, dunks or kick-out 3-pointers.
The Tar Heels (25-9) had success with the strategy early and kept going to it over and over on the way to building and maintaining a lead for all but 31 seconds of the hotly contested semifinal matchup.
Luke Maye did the most damage from the undefended high post, scoring a team-leading 17 points in a bounceback performance from his 1 for 15 disaster 24 hours earlier in a quarterfinal win against Miami.
Cameron Johnson and Pinson also got plenty of mileage on soft 10-12 foot jumpers in the late while Garrison Brooks came off the bench to score 10 points from close range, most of which came as a direct result of interior passes.
Of UNC’s 28 field goals in the game, all but four of them were assisted. Pinson led the team with seven assists while Joel Berry and Kenny Williams had six each.
“That’s pretty doggone impressive there,” Williams said of his team’s sharing of the ball.
“We’ve got passes on this team,” Pinson said. “We look for each other and (are) very unselfish. That’s one thing we don’t have to worry about. We’re willing to move and cut when you know guys are looking for you, so I think that’s the biggest thing for us.”
It also helps when the Tar Heels are playing tight defense, something they haven’t always been able to do this season. In each of the three games in this tournament, however, they’ve limited their opponents to 41 percent shooting or worse.
Although the Blue Devils had the best percentage of the three at 40.7, the job UNC did on them was by far its most impressive in that it successfully prevented Duke from taking full advantage of its size mismatch inside.
Freshman standout Marvin Bagley III still ended up with 19 points and 13 rebounds. But he wasn’t nearly as dominant as he was during the second half of that game in Durham seven days earlier.
Wendell Carter’s 14 points were two fewer than the combination provided to the Tar Heels by their less-heralded rookie big man tandem of Brooks and Sterling Manley.
“I thought their bench had outscored our bench dramatically in the first two games,” Roy Williams said of Duke. “So we did challenge our guys and I think with Garrison getting 10 and Sterling getting 6, that was big for us.”
It was also big that the Blue Devils (26-7) helped the Tar Heels out considerably by getting away from what they do best.
Pounding the ball inside.
When they did, UNC had trouble stopping Bagley and Carter. But instead of continuing to feed its two future NBA lottery picks, Duke jacked up 23 3-point attempts — making only six.
“I knew they were going to shoot threes. Twenty-three is a lot, though,” Kenny Williams said. “I wouldn’t say they played into our hands by doing that. They still got the ball inside. We just tried to battle as best we could.”
The Blue Devils battled hard as well, including one pivotal occasion in which they were ruled to have battled too hard.
And of course, the incident involved Grayson Allen.
It happened late in the first half when Allen appeared to throw his hip into UNC’s Brooks behind the play just as Kenny Williams scored on a fastbreak. Duke was within three at the time, but after Williams’ basket and two Brooks free throws for the flagrant foul, the Tar Heels were able to maintain a five-point edge into halftime.
Those extra points came in handy later in the game when UNC went into survival mode. The Tar Heels missed their final seven field goal attempts and turned the ball over three times, including once by Pinson with 11.8 seconds remaining, before finally holding on when Allen missed a 3-pointer and Pinson hit his two free throws with 3.2 seconds left.
“I just like how we fought back,” Pinson said. “At the same time, you’ve got to keep playing. You just can’t stop. The game’s still going on and you just want to make plays.”