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DURHAM, N.C. – The tears came even before Brice Johnson walked off Coach K Court at Cameron Indoor Stadium and entered a raucous Tar Heel locker room on Saturday night following his team’s 76-72 win over Duke.
With his college career in its final days, the senior forward had been intently focused on securing at least one championship of relevance before he played his last game in a Tar Heel uniform. That it finally came on a court where he had lost three times before against a rival he had lost to six times before was fitting conclusion.
This is where UNC was expected to be five long months ago. Outright ACC regular season champions. The No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament. In contention for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament with an opening weekend at PNC Arena in Raleigh all but assured. However, the Tar Heels’ path from the preseason to the postseason has been anything but linear.
In a regular season finale that in some ways mirrored their regular season, the Tar Heels dominated the post, nearly allowed a double-digit lead to slip away (twice) and struggled to defend the 3-point shot. Despite trailing by 10 points early in the second half, Duke kept coming at UNC on Senior Night, eventually tying the game at 49-49 on a Grayson Allen 3-pointer that set Cameron on fire with 11:56 to play.
It was then that Roy Williams called a timeout, to engage his team more so than settle them down.
“He wanted us to play with poise,” Johnson said. “We got back to what we needed to do. We expected them to come out and have a run against us. They are a good team. They are at home. We just had to withstand it and be able to keep playing.”
Theo Pinson made up for a turnover out of the timeout with a steal on the other end and an offensive rebound and putback on UNC’s next possession. The Tar Heels led the rest of the way, never trailing in the game.
One year after coughing up a 10-point lead in the final four minutes in this building and three weeks after fumbling away an eight-point lead in the final seven minutes against this same opponent, UNC withstood Duke’s charge this time around, connecting on all eight of its free throws – six coming off one-and-one chances – in the final 26 seconds to secure the victory and the program’s first outright ACC regular season championship since 2012.
“That was the best effort we’ve given all year,” said senior guard Marcus Paige, who sealed the win with four free throws in the final 10 seconds. “It wasn’t our best game, but we were everywhere. It meant the world to us, and that’s why we were able to win.”
In the first meeting between this programs, UNC was unable to gut out a victory. It was Duke that made plays down the stretch. The Blue Devils made plays yet again on their Senior Night, although the Tar Heels made more.
After Duke sliced its first-half 11-point deficit to two in less than four minutes, UNC countered with a 7-0 spurt to keep the home team at bay. The Tar Heels matched that response after halftime, turning a 57-55 lead with 7:59 to play into a 68-59 margin with 3:22 remaining.
In 2012, UNC lost a game it never should have lost to Duke in the Smith Center when Austin Rivers buried a game-winning 3-pointer over the outstretched arm of Tyler Zeller. That Tar Heel team responded and rolled the Blue Devils in Cameron. Williams drew that parallel to the first loss to Duke this season with his team this week.
“I told them it’s been done before and we can do it again,” Williams said. “I tried to give our kids confidence, that I knew one team that could come in here on Senior Night and play great and win, and that was us.”
Saturday’s win marks the fourth time in the last 11 years that Duke won the first game in Chapel Hill and UNC won the return game at Cameron. Prior to 2006, that had happened just once in school history (1985).
Williams told reporters on Senior Night five nights ago that he would give anything for this group of seniors, for this team, to experience the thrill of winning a championship. As such, that postgame locker room that a teary-eyed Johnson walked into after the buzzer sounded was hyped.
“It was pretty crazy,” junior forward Kennedy Meeks said. “Coach had a lot of energy. He deserves it. Three years struggling, or however long it was, and finally he gets to smile today. There’s no better feeling as a player, and I’m pretty sure there’s no better feeling as a coach.”
The postseason begins for UNC on Wednesday as the top seed in the ACC Tournament. None of the players, however, had much interest in looking ahead that far during their postgame interviews.
The Tar Heels were going to enjoy this championship a little bit longer.