Only like this could Saturday so quickly turn from a night of triumph for UNC to one of tribulation. From a joyful court storm — yes, they even had the security guards ready — to another defeated trudge toward the locker room. From the definitive win of a topsy-turvy 2019 season to yet another rip-your-heart-out loss, this time against your biggest rival.
Duke 98. UNC 96. In the most excruciating fashion.
Only like this.
Tre Jones opened the wound when he willed the Blue Devils back from an 80-73 deficit with just over a minute left and ended regulation with a game-tying, buzzer-beating jump shot.
And Wendell Moore Jr. promptly poured a gallon of salt on it when he grabbed an airballed jumper and laid it in at the overtime buzzer — simultaneously winning this absurd game for No. 7 Duke and punching the entire Smith Center in its gut.
“When you have a result like this, when you don't come through for team, but it’s also for the community and the people who live and breathe and die over this stuff, it's absolutely devastating,” guard Andrew Platek said.
He’s right. The Tar Heels’ loss, which dropped them to 10-13 and 3-9 in the ACC, will go down in rivalry lore for all the wrong reasons.
Yes, UNC was on the other side of two once-in-a-thousand shots that will live on ESPN hype videos. But there were also 17 missed free throws, two last-second collapses (take that, Clemson game) and an inability to stop Jones, who scored 22 of his game-high 28 points for Duke in the second half and overtime.
“We did everything right throughout the whole game,” guard Christian Keeling said. “Simple mistakes managed to cost us … what they say about this (rivalry) is anything can happen. So it hurts. We’re hurting.”
Saturday’s first half will be largely and understandably forgotten. If there’s anything to glean, though, it was in those first 20 minutes. Armando Bacot ran the floor for dunks, Keeling made three straight mid-ranges and North Carolina shot 59.4 percent from the field en route to a 44-35 lead.
The only glaring concern was Duke’s Vernon Carey Jr., who joined Marvin Bagley III and Zion Williamson in the club of springy, left-handed future NBA lottery pick forwards who wreaked havoc on North Carolina. The first-year big had 18 points in the first half. Even that was appeased, however, when Carey fouled out at the 4:16 mark with zero second-half points to his name.
The game had been one of runs after halftime, but the Tar Heels consistently kept a cushion. When Carey left the game — tellingly shaking head coach Roy Williams’ hand on his way out — UNC had its largest lead: 77-64.
“If you don't care who won the game, you had to enjoy that as a big time college basketball game,” Williams said. “I care who won the game so I didn't enjoy the final outcome.”
Only like this.
The slow unravel didn’t start, really, until after the final media timeout of regulation. Duke’s Alex O’Connell swished a 3-pointer, and UNC’s Cole Anthony went 1-2 at the line. 80-73, with 1:11 left.
Then UNC started trading 1-2 and 0-2 trips to the free-throw line for icy Jones bucket after icy Jones bucket. That catches up to a team. Quickly.
“I'm really angry and mad at myself because i let my teammates down,” said Platek, who went 1-4 from the foul line in the final minute. “We’re all just kind of in our own heads right now. Nobody really said anything. It is what it is.”
Then Meltdown 2.0 came. Jones scored. Moore scored. Brooks turned it over on an inbounds pass. Again, unthinkably, Duke had a chance to win a game it had no business being alive in.
Down 96-95, Jones drew a foul, made his first free throw and missed his second. Then Duke secured yet another offensive rebound, ran down the clock and took a final shot — Jones’ — only for Moore to emerge as the (literal) last-second hero.
“What happened in the game, it's just unreal,” Anthony said. “You couldn't have told me with two minutes left in the game we would have lost that way.”
Duke dogpiled its unlikely savoir, a la Austin Rivers, while North Carolina players stood and crouched in alternating shock and despair. The postgame interview scene was pretty similar.
“It wasn't just that last play,” Pierce said. “We unfortunately just pissed it away at the end ... it wasn't meant to be.”