Duke (20-4, 7-2 ACC) leaned on its ability from long range to build a 15-7 advantage and led until the final minute of the first half, but the Tar Heels (20-4, 7-2 ACC) kept their poise and continued to pound the ball inside to Tyler Zeller (23 points, 11 rebounds) and John Henson (12 points, 17 rebounds). UNC closed the half on an 8-1 spurt to take a 43-40 lead.
The Tar Heels opened the second half on a 14-4 run to increase its lead to 57-44, but Duke hung around by playing more physical in the post and knocking down seven 3-pointers in the last 15 minutes. North Carolina led 82-72 with 2:38 to play, but failed to make its free throws as the Blue Devils capitalized with a 13-2 run to end the game.
Harrison Barnes paced UNC with 25 points, including 19 in the second half. Kendall Marshall added 14 points and eight assists against three turnovers.
Rivers led all scorers with 29 points on 9-of-16 shooting (6-of-10 3FG). Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly both contributed 15 points for the Blue Devils.
UNC shot 49.2 percent (31-of-63) while holding Duke to 43.5 percent on 27-of-62 shooting. The Tar Heels won the rebounding (42-35) and turnover (9-10) battles.
INSIDE THE GAME
Leaving the Door Open
It looked as though North Carolina had the 233rd edition of this rivalry wrapped up with 2:38 to play as it led 82-72 after what ended up being Barnes's final basket. But then the floor fell out from under the Tar Heels in devastating fashion.
Duke would score on its final six possessions, pulling down offensive rebounds on its only two misses. First it was a Tyler Thornton 3-pointer from the right wing to cut UNC's lead to seven. Then Curry capitalized on a Marshall turnover to drain a 3-pointer on the Blue Devils' next possession and the deficit was suddenly four points.
Another Tar Heel turnover – this one on a wild Barnes drive that resulted in a charge – set up an odd Kelly two-point basket after Zeller tipped in his miss from beyond the arc.
UNC sandwiched single made free throws around another Kelly basket, setting up the final play of the game with 12 seconds remaining.
"We had some opportunities," UNC head coach Roy Williams said. "The last three or four minutes we had two turnovers and two or three missed free throws and they scored twice on second shots when we didn't secure the rebound… They made more plays the last three minutes than we did."
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski offered a similar explanation, saying, "We fought like crazy just to stay close and then in the last couple of minutes, we got hot."
North Carolina entered Wednesday's contest ranked last in the ACC in free throw percentage (65.1), and that albatross made a sobering entrance down the stretch. UNC missed six of its 11 free throws, including the front end of a 1-and-1, over the final 7:20 of play.
Williams summed up the magnitude of the loss during his postgame press conference: "This one hurts."
It hurts in more ways than one. Not only did the Tar Heels fail to gain control of the ACC with seven league games left, but they appear to have penciled themselves in as a No. 2 seed for the NCAA Tournament.
Strong Start, Rough Ending
If you're looking for how North Carolina was able to battle back from an eight-point deficit to take a three-point lead into halftime, look no further than Zeller. The senior 7-footer was a machine in the post early, totaling 19 points on 7-of-14 shooting and eight rebounds (four offensive).
But Zeller would officially attempt just one field goal after halftime and connected on just two of his four free throw attempts, all coming in the final minute of play.
Williams pointed to Zeller's foul trouble as a factor in his second-half production – he picked up his third foul with 7:34 remaining and his fourth 29 seconds later – but also praised Kelly and Mason and Miles Plumlee.
"They're good defensively; they really are," Williams said. "They have size. They're 6-11, 6-11, 6-10. They kept running those guys at him. He played 33 minutes. I don't think it was a conditioning thing, but again, give them some credit."
If the lack of offensive production after halftime had been the only negative, then Zeller would have likely emerged during postgame interviews with his normal media approach, calm and steady. But two missed free throws on UNC's last two possessions had fans grumbling in the closing seconds, and things got even worse on the last play of the game as Zeller got caught on a switch guarding Austin and gave the freshman just enough room to fire off his game-winner.
"I should have gotten up further – I didn't want to foul him and put him on the free throw line," a despondent Zeller told reporters. "But at the same time, I still should have got up. You can't give him a three when you're up two."
What began as the quintessential senior moment for Zeller ended in nightmarish fashion.
A Barrage of Treys
It didn't come as a surprise that Duke was firing at will from 3-point territory early – 11 of the Blue Devils' first 16 shots were treys – but its offensive approach was telling. Instead of working together, the Blue Devils spent much of their time playing 1-on-1.
Duke owned a 29-25 lead 12 minutes into the game, but had scored 11 field goals on just two assists. By contrast, UNC had made 10 field goals on seven assists. But the Blue Devils had connected on seven of its first 16 3-pointers, while North Carolina missed both attempts from beyond the arc in the first half.
Duke's shooters eventually cooled off, suffering a 10-minute, 53-second stretch without a 3-pointer. But Rivers was finally able to shoot his way out of the slump and the Blue Devils knocked down seven of their last 15 treys.
Krzyzewski told reporters that his plan was not to come in shooting bombs from deep, but that's simply how the game played out.
"We knew we could get some outside shots," he said. "They're real big – they're bigger than us at every position. You can't just battle them inside."
Krzyzewski's squad ended up tying its season-low with eight assists, but seven of those dimes resulted in three points.
North Carolina may have won the assist game, 14-8, but the net difference was only six points as Duke shot six times as many 3-pointers (36-to-6) and made 14 to UNC's one.
The Blue Devils' 36 3-pointers surpassed their previous season-high by five.