DURHAM — As No. 9 North Carolina jogged toward the locker room at halftime, it seemed the team was doing the impossible.
In a gritty first half in Cameron Indoor Stadium, UNC held No. 5 Duke to a mere 25 points in 20 minutes. The Blue Devils were shooting 31.3 percent from the field, and 10 percent from 3-point range. The most impressive — and shocking — part was Marvin Bagley III’s stat line.
With 6-foot-6 Theo Pinson as his main defender, the 6-foot-11 Bagley put up just three points and four rebounds. His Duke teammates weren’t finding him in the post, and he was struggling for position at times against Pinson, who fronted him.
In an eventual 74-64 win, however, Bagley spurned a 49-point second half that pushed the Blue Devils over their rivals and dropped North Carolina to the No. 6 seed for next week’s ACC Tournament.
“We just knew they were going to come back and keep playing,” Pinson said. “It’s Carolina-Duke. They’re not just going to lay down.”
Early in the second half, a Cameron Johnson 3-pointer stretched UNC’s lead to 42-29. Bagley scored six quick points, but two baskets from Luke Maye kept the Blue Devils (25-6, 13-5 ACC) at bay. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski called a timeout at the 11:09 mark, with his team trailing, 50-43.
After that break, Bagley reminded everyone inside a full-capacity arena why he is an NBA Draft lock, and arguably the No. 1 overall pick.
It began with a 3-pointer, only his 18th of the year. On Duke’s next possession, Bagley had a wild, one-man sequence in which he rebounded his own misses twice before converting an and-one. The play sent the crowd into a deafening frenzy and cut UNC’s lead to 50-49.
“6-foot-11, athletic as all get out, long arms ... he’s a heck of a basketball player,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said. “I don’t have anybody like him.”
After those six straight points from Bagley, Duke guard Gary Trent Jr. hit a three and gave Duke a 52-50 lead, its first of the second half. The Blue Devils ran their offense through Bagley and guard Trevon Duval, while playing zone and forcing North Carolina (22-9, 11-7 ACC) to shoot more 3-pointers than Williams wanted.
Timely 3-pointers from Johnson and Kenny Williams, as well as two Pinson floaters from the high post Duke’s zone left open, kept UNC within a basket of its rival. But when the game hit 60-60, Duval made a running layup then cleanly picked off a pass and assisted fellow guard Trent on another three. 65-60.
“I think some aliens crawled up in my guys’ bodies that second half,” Williams said, “because that wasn’t the North Carolina team that I’ve seen all year and the North Carolina team that I love.”
Duke ended the game on a 14-4 run, with no points more emblematic of its comeback than a Duval-to-Bagley alley oop at the 1:26 mark. Bagley had 18 points on 8-11 shooting in the second half. He finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds, six of them offensive.
“Some of the best plays of any player in the country occurred during those few minutes by that kid,” Krzyzewski said of his star center. “He got angry, he didn’t want to lose and the will that he showed was phenomenal.”
Berry and Pinson both emphasized that Bagley didn’t do anything different in the second half. He just kept on fighting for post position, and his teammates kept on looking for him. Pinson also spent time guarding Bagley in the first matchup against Duke on Feb. 8, when he had 15 points and 16 rebounds.
“He was just still being aggressive,” Pinson said. “I tried to make things tough for him — he’s a great player.”
After limiting the Blue Devils to 25 in the first half, UNC allowed them to explode for 49 in the next 20 minutes. Duke shot 60 percent in the second half and made eight of 15 threes. Defense also proved an important factor, as Duke had 12 steals and eight blocks.
Despite the final score, the game didn’t disappoint. It was the 45th matchup in which both teams were ranked in the top 10, a series Duke now leads, 23-22. Plenty of celebrities were on hand, including Ken Jeong, 2 Chainz, Tony Romo and Todd Gurley II. There were seven ties, 10 lead changes and plenty of floor dives.
When it came down to it, though, Bagley exerted his dominance over whoever guarded him, and secured a win for Duke in what will almost definitely be his last home game.
"I thought one time he drove in and it should’ve been a charge, but every other time he just scored," Williams said. "I didn’t have anything to complain to the officials about. He had 21 and 15 today that seemed like 30 and 20."