DURHAM — Cameron Indoor Stadium may be the most intimidating place in college basketball.
It’s small. It’s hot. And it can get incredibly loud, especially when Duke is making shots — as it did during the second half Saturday.
It’s the kind of place that can leave a visiting team shell-shocked. Even one used to playing there, with seniors that have played for and won a national championship.
The frenzied atmosphere, along with some hot-shooting Blue Devils, got the best of North Carolina in its annual regular season-ending rivalry showdown. After leading by as many as 13 early in the second half, the 10th-ranked Tar Heels wilted down the stretch on the way to a 74-64 loss that cost coach Roy Williams’ team a double bye in next week’s ACC tournament.
“We played timid as a team,” junior guard Kenny Williams said. “I think that’s why the ball didn’t go in the way we wanted it to. Then weren’t able to turn around and get stops.
“We left a lot out there. We were getting good shots, shots that we usually knock down. But that goes back to being timid.”
UNC (22-9) didn’t start out that way.
Grinding it out against their taller opponent, the Tar Heels successfully kept freshmen big men Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. in check for the better part of 26 minutes while holding Duke’s perimeter shooters to just one 3-pointer in 10 first half attempts.
The Blue Devils also helped out by going just 4 for their first 14 from the free-throw line.
Although UNC didn’t shoot well either, it was able to get enough offense from Williams and Cameron Johnson to maintain a lead that hit double figures when Williams hit a 3-pointer from the right corner as the halftime buzzer sounded, then gave a little fist pump to the Duke student section as he headed to the locker room.
Johnson led UNC with 16 points while Williams and Luke Maye finished with 13 points each.
The advantage eventually topped out at 42-29 when Johnson hit a 3-pointer at the 16:52 mark and was still at 11 points two minutes later when the momentum began to change.
It didn’t happen right away with one of Duke’s trademark lightning blitzes. It began with a seemingly innocuous free throw by Carter. Then came a missed shot, a turnover and a Duke offensive rebound, followed by a 3-pointer from the top of the circle by Trevon Duval.
Another 3-pointer by Grayson Allen and a Bagley dunk closed out a 10-2 run that got a once-nervous crowd back into the game. A pair of Luke Maye baskets was followed by another 9-0 spurt that put the Blue Devils ahead for the first time since late in the opening half.
And they were off and running.
“I thought in the first half, we did some good things,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We were aggressive. I thought in the second half Duke was entirely more aggressive than we were.
“It was strange. Duval hasn’t been a great shooter and he makes a three from the top of the key. Then one of our best shooters misses a three. Then we miss another three and Bagley makes a three and all of a sudden things started snowballing on us.”
The Blue Devils outscored the Tar Heels 41-20 over the final 14½ minutes.
With Bagley and Carter, along with backups Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden combining to block six shots and making it difficult to get to the rim at the back end of Duke’s zone defense, UNC was forced to settle for far more perimeter jumpers than it would have liked.
The Tar Heels shot 31 3-pointers in the game, their second most this season. They made only eight and went just 10 for their final 31 shots overall.
“We missed a lot of shots, including myself,” senior guard Joel Berry said. “Sometimes that’s the way it goes and you can’t do anything about it.”
Berry had problems all night, missing all seven of his 3-pointers and tying his season low with only six points. His three lowest scoring totals of the season — six on Saturday and against NC State at the Smith Center, and seven against Michigan State — all came in UNC losses.
While the Tar Heels’ most important player was struggling, Duke’s star shined bright. Bagley had 18 points and 11 rebounds in the second half alone, as he exploited the Blue Devils’ decided size advantage to break UNC’s spirit.
“He was just being him,” the Tar Heels’ Theo Pinson said of Bagley. “He stayed in attack mode. He was a workhorse. He got a couple of buckets, easy ones, that got him going. It was a big-time second half for him.”
It was a performance that help send UNC to its second straight loss — at the worst time of the year. Now instead of starting the postseason on the high of a six-game winning streak that was snapped earlier in the week, the Tar Heels find themselves searching for answers.
And perhaps, fighting some uncharacteristic doubt.
“All season we’ve been talking about we make those plays, we make the winning plays when we need to and tonight it was then,” Kenny Williams said.
“They just played harder in the second half,” Berry added. “We played a little timid and it’s hard to win games like that.”