By Turner Walston
Thirty-eight seconds in to Saturday night's game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Carolina took the lead for the first time on a Kennedy Meeks tip-in. The Tar Heels would lead the host Blue Devils for the next 27 minutes and 26 seconds of game time, until Duke tied the score at 49 on a Grayson Allen three-pointer.
Roy Williams called a 30-second timeout at that point. Carolina had seen an eight-point halftime lead erased. In just over eight minutes of second-half play, the Tar Heels had made just three field goals, (going without one for the first 5:32) and a pair of free throws. Meanwhile, Duke had climbed back in on the strength of four three-pointers, a lay-up and three free throws. All of a sudden, a game that the Tar Heels had controlled from the outset was very much in doubt.
How would the Tar Heels respond? In one of college basketball's toughest environments, would the team constantly labeled as 'soft' wilt under the pressure?
Out of the timeout, an errant Theo Pinson entry pass was stolen by Allen. Duke's best scorer was driving for the lead. But Marcus Paige poked the ball from behind, and it ended up in Pinson's hands. He pitched ahead to Justin Jackson, whose lay-up attempt came off the front rim, but the trailing Pinson was there for the tip.
Allen's three-point attempt on the next trip came hard off the back iron, and Jackson found a streaking Paige for a lay-up. Despite the turnover out of the timeout, Carolina had needed just 50 seconds to untie the game and take a four-point lead.
“We answered with a quick 4-0 run, back to back baskets,” Paige said. “That was huge, to kind of settle the team back down and just understand that it's going to be a long game.”
Fast-forward seven and a half minutes or so, when a sophomore making his first start in Cameron decided to take matters in his own hands. Carolina's lead is seven, thanks to a Jackson dunk off of a Kennedy Meeks bounce pass.
Marshall Plumlee sets a high screen for Allen some 25 feet from the basket. Allen works around the screen to free himself from Nate Britt, and Meeks retreats to pick up the ball-handler. Brandon Ingram, Matt Jones and Luke Kennard were all posted around the perimeter looking for a potential kick-out. Joel Berry, assigned to Kennard, floated toward the basket as Allen drove. Meeks contested the shot, which came off the back iron to the far side.
Berry collected the ball in front of Plumlee and Kennard and turned up the court. Here, I'll let him help tell it. I just grabbed the rebound and when I got out, there were two guys behind me. With Allen out of bounds, Berry used a left-handed dribble to get around Kennard. I just tried to get out as fast as possible and my guys were running Suddenly, he was past three Blue Devils. Berry switched to his right hand as he came across mid-court. I tried to cut the court, because the left side wasn't open
Brice Johnson hit the brakes to hold up Jones, and it was just Ingram to beat. and when I cut through, Ingram was inside and he was playing between two people Meeks was available for a pass, and Britt was in the corner. If Ingram committed to Berry, Jackson would be open. With a crossover dribble, Berry cut inside of Ingram and reached the paint. so I just took it all the way. “He's going all the way!” Dan Shulman said on the ESPN broadcast. Berry elevated, kissed the ball off the glass and scored. Coast to coast. The lead was now nine. Mike Krzyzewski spent his penultimate timeout with 3:12 remaining.
“It was huge,” Paige said. He'd watched the play from the scorer's table with Pinson, and the senior had to calm his teammate's excitement. “They had a good shot, and Joel got the rebound and kind of probed and the whole lane opened up and he got the lay-up. That's a four-point swing right there in a game that's a one or two possession game, so that was huge for us.”
“I think that play right there,” Berry said later. “That was it, right there.”
It wasn't quite it, as you know, as Duke scratched to within two very late in the game, but the Tar Heels made their final ten free throw attempts, including eight in the final 26 seconds, to maintain the lead and capture the victory. Pinson made two of those final eight free throws. Berry made two. Paige made four. “Over at our place, we didn't finish out,” Berry said. “Last year when we came over here, we didn't finish out. So everyone started questioning, why can't we finish out games. Tonight we did. We went 8-8 in the last minute. We went 20-23 the whole game and the free throws are freebies, so we were able to get that and that's how you close out a game, knocking down free throws.”
Berry's coast-to-coast lay-up, which made the score 68-59, wasn't the final nail in the coffin, but it certainly made a statement. The sophomore saw an opening to change the game, and he took it. “When the ball is in my hand, I'm going to try to do whatever I can to help our team,” he said. “Just right then, I was confident with the ball, and I got all the way to the rim. That's what kind of player I am. I don't do anything to try to be the star or anything, but if the ball is in my hand, I'm going to try to make a play.”
And that's what he did. Took the ball in his hands, made a statement, and changed the game. “I like when they get loud and you hit a shot and it kind of quiets them,” Berry said of the fans at Cameron. “That's a good thing to hear. That's what we did.”