CHAPEL HILL — With its two talented big men inside and a starting lineup comprised of five soon-to-be first round NBA draft picks, Duke can be an intimidating presence on the basketball court.
But North Carolina’s veterans have been through too much at this point in their careers to be intimidated by anything or anybody.
Especially a bunch of one-and-done freshmen.
They made that abundantly clear Thursday by keeping their cool through an early Blue Devil blitz, then asserting themselves early in the second half before holding on for an 82-78 victory at a raucous Smith Center in the first of two regular season meetings between the neighboring rivals.
“Me and Joel (Berry) talked about it before the game. This was our last chance playing Duke here and we wanted to go out with a win,” UNC guard Theo Pinson said. “We tried to do everything we could. … It was amazing. I’m pretty sure nobody picked us to win this game except our fans.”
That was especially true after the Blue Devils used the low post dominance of Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr. and Marques Bolden, along with some hot shooting, to jump out to a 40-28 lead after 13½ minutes.
Duke (19-5, 7-4 ACC) built the advantage by scoring on 12 of 14 possessions at one point and outrebounding the smaller Tar Heels 14-6.
But that’s when the defending national champions’ experience began to kick in.
Berry started the turnaround by driving hard to the basket for a 3-point play before Pinson came flying from across the floor to block a 3-point attempt by Duke’s Trevon Duval that got the sellout crowd of 21,750 back into the game.
Suddenly, all those rebounds that were going the Blue Devils’ way, started ending up in the hands of Tar Heels. And with Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson combining for seven first half 3-pointers, UNC was able to claw its back to within 49-45 by the break.
Williams ended with six 3-pointers, the most ever by a Tar Heel against Duke, on his way to 20 points. Despite the early rebounding deficit, UNC ended up outrebounding the Blue Devils 38-24 the rest of the way to end up with a plus-six margin on the boards. It also committed only two turnovers, one in each half, to tie a school record.
“It wasn’t a tactical change,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said of his team’s sudden reversal of fortune. “It’s just something we preach all the time … about defending, rebounding and playing with a great deal of effort.”
Or as Pinson described it, with a great deal of “will and fight.”
An example of that came during Duke’s early run, when Duval blew past Berry and finished with an in-your-face dunk that had an effect on the UNC point guard.
Just one the one Duval had intended.
“I’m a competitor and I take pride in this rivalry,” said Berry, who led all scorers in the game with 21 points despite going only 1 for 8 from 3-point range.
“He went down and dunked it. Even though it might have been my fault, I just don’t want to see that. So I started picking him up full-court and just letting him know that, ‘You’re still a freshman. I don’t care how good you are, whether you’re a one-and-done, that doesn’t scare me.’”
The Tar Heels were just as fearless when it came to Bagley.
Although the athletic 6-foot-10 star put up big numbers — finishing with 15 points, 16 rebounds, four assists and two blocks in 39 minutes — UNC was able to limit his damage with a swarming defense that kept a man in front of him as much as possible to deny entry passes into the post.
It’s a defensive strategy that helped hold the Blue Devils without a field goal and Bagley without a shot for the first 4½ minutes of the second half, a decisive stretch in which the Tar Heels put together a 16-2 run put them ahead by double digits.
“I don’t know how many points we scored straight. It was just building up, building up, building up,” Pinson said. “We just kept getting stops. Once we get stops, especially with the small group, it’s dangerous.”
It’s even more dangerous when the other team’s freshmen abandon the plan given to them by their Hall of Fame coach and begin taking matters into their own hands.
“At the start of the second half, we did not execute what we had diagramed at halftime,” Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski said. “Then boom, boom, boom. When you don’t (execute the game plan), you get confused because what you said you were going to do, you’re not doing. And all of a sudden, that can lead not only to poor offensive possessions, but poor defense and transition.”
The Blue Devils eventually regained their composure, at least somewhat, to hold UNC scoreless for more than five minutes down the stretch.
But even that wasn’t enough to come all the way back, in large measure, because Duke stopped trying to get the ball inside and started firing up 3-point jumpers — even during a stretch when it had three players 6-10 or taller on the floor at the same time.
“One time Carter shot a three, we went down and scored, then he inbounded the ball to Grayson (Allen) and Grayson was like, ‘Come on, man, we’ve got to get the ball inside,’” Berry said. “I was a little surprised, but that’s what happens when you’re flying around, making them do something different.”
Johnson, a slender 6-8 wing who nearly matched Bagley with 18 points and 13 rebounds, finally ended his team’s drought with a gutsy 3-pointer from the left wing off a Kenny Williams drive. That opened the UNC lead back up to 77-71 with 3:09 left.
Pinson added the final exclamation point with a dunk in the final seconds before jumping up on a chair after time had expired and letting out a joyous primal scream that could be heard even over the din of a celebrating home crowd.
“Winning is a lot more fun than losing,” Roy Williams said. “There’s no question about it.”
Johnson, a graduate transfer from Pittsburgh playing in his first Duke rivalry game, concurred.
“Coming to UNC to play in an atmosphere like this … honestly, there’s nothing like it,” Johnson said. “Everybody was right when they said that. There is nothing like it and I’m really thankful for the opportunity to go out there and to win.”