Joel Berry II is going to get the headlines. He finished with 21 points, six assists and four boards.
Kenny Williams might, too. He busted out of a shooting slump with 20 points and six threes, four of which came in the first six minutes. Hell, even Luke Maye managed to find a way not to get outscored by any of Duke far more talented front court pieces.
But the real reason that No. 21 North Carolina handed No. 9 Duke their second straight loss, 82-78, on Thursday night, the real reason that the Tar Heels can ahead into Saturday’s date in Raleigh against the team that isn’t an actual rival, is Cameron Johnson.
The talk heading into the first matchup between the Tobacco Road rivals is something that I’ve been mentioning since November: The roles had reversed for these two programs. More than just about any other coach in the country, Roy Williams has stayed as far away from the small-ball revolution as possible. He wants two bigs on the floor. He wants to pound the offensive glass. He wants to play high-low basketball and throw the ball into the post. He wants Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks to carry him to a national title. He wants Brice Johnson to be his all-american.
He just doesn’t have the roster to do that. Sterling Manley, Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman. They all have a chance to be somewhere between good and really good in the ACC, but they’re all three- and four-star freshmen. Asking them to step in from day one and dominate just isn’t going to happen. The result is that UNC has been playing Theo Pinson and Johnson, natural threes, at their forward spot with Luke Maye, who is probably at his best as a stretch-four, as their starting center.
That is the epitome of small-ball, which has been the bread-and-butter for the Blue Devils since Coach K fully-embraced the one-and-done roster construct. This season, however, with a front line that consists of Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter, Duke has pounded the ball into the paint more than anyone. They’re leading the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. They physically overpower anyone that gets in their way.
And that’s what they were planning on doing to UNC, but it didn’t work.
Johnson was the foil. The 6-foot-8 junior, a transfer from Pitt, finished with 18 points and 13 boards. He not only hit four of North Carolina’s 11 threes, effectively taking advantage of the reluctance of Duke’s bigs to step away from the rim, but he also grabbed six of their 20 offensive rebounds. Frankly, UNC won the battle in the paint. They grabbed 20 offensive rebounds and held Duke to a 31.4 offensive rebounding percentage; on the season, Duke collected more than 41 percent of their misses. They held Bagley in check — keeping him to 15 points and 16 boards is a win — and kept Carter from really having much impact on the game; he finished with just 10 points and five boards.
More importantly, they made Duke a jump-shooting team. In my mind, this is the stat that defines the game, that epitomizes North Carolina’s win and, frankly, paints a nice picture for some of the issues going on with this Duke team right now: In the final 11:35 of the game, Duke attempted just two two-point field goals and 12 three-pointers. One of those two-pointers was a jumper from Bagley. The other was a dunk from Bagley with 34 seconds left after he grabbed an offensive rebound on a possession where Duke had already missed two three-pointers.
Duke, who has now lost three of their last four games to fall four games out of first place in the ACC, is far more talented than UNC.
But North Carolina is the team that knows themselves, and even if just for a night, played in a way that proved they understand their roles and how they fit within the roster.
And that, often times, trumps raw talent.