North Carolina suffered the most cruel defeat yet of a painful season on Saturday when it blew a 13-point lead in the final minutes of regulation and a five-point lead in the final 20 seconds of overtime to rival Duke as the No. 7 Blue Devils roared back twice and won 98-96 at the final buzzer.
Wendell Moore Jr. put back a Tre Jones miss as the overtime clock expired on the latest memorable chapter of college basketball's premier rivalry. The Duke players mobbed Moore as the Tar Heels looked on in stunned silence as a game they had multiple chances to win ended in agony on their home floor.
North Carolina (10-13, 3-9 ACC) made just 21-of-38 free-throws, which left the door open for Duke (20-3, 10-2). Jones made sure the Blue Devils capitalized. The sophomore point guard scored 15 straight points for Duke between the end of regulation and the beginning of overtime and finished with a game-high 28 points, including a buzzer-beater at the end of regulation after he rebounded his own free-throw miss.
Jones' game overshadowed a great effort from North Carolina's Cole Anthony, who finished with a team-high 24 points and 11 rebounds and managed to rally the Tar Heels from a five-point deficit early in overtime to take a five-point in the final minute.
Anthony hit a pair of free-throws with 21 seconds left in the extra period to put the Tar Heels ahead 96-91. It seemed for a moment as if North Carolina had weathered the storm.
But Jones responded with an and-1 lay-up just seconds later. Jones missed the free-throw, and Moore rebounded it and scored to bring Duke within a point with 12 seconds left. Then, North Carolina turned the ball over while attempting an inbounds pass on a play that featured a controversial no-call. A foul would have sent the Tar Heels to the free-throw line. Instead, Duke got the ball back down by a point with a chance to win the game.
Jones got fouled, hit the first free-throw and missed the second. A mad dash for the rebound ensued. The ball landed in Jones' hands and he heaved up an off-balance shot. Moore grabbed the miss out of the air and laid it in as time expired.
This was one of the most memorable chapters in an epic rivalry: The teams wore throwback uniforms as they met for the first time in the 100-year anniversary of the series. The teams will play again March 7 at Duke to conclude the regular season. But it will be hard to top what transpired on Saturday. In a rivalry full of crazy finishes and epic moments, Saturday's rendition delivered as well as any Duke-UNC game in recent memory. Much of the credit for that goes to North Carolina, which — free-throw shooting aside — played one of its best games this season and led for nearly the entire game.
No Carey, no problem: Vernon Carey Jr. carried Duke in the first half with 18 points as the Blue Devils trailed 44-35 entering the break. But the talented freshman forward battled foul trouble in the second half and fouled out with 4:16 remaining and his team trailing by 12. He did not score in the second half. The Blue Devils barely got any offensive production from their role players. But with Carey down, their other stars continued to step up.
Moore returned to the starting lineup for the first time since a hand injury forced him to miss over a month of action, and he finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds for his first career double-double. Cassisus Stanley also contributed 22 points before fouling out. Aside from the quartet of Jones, Carey, Moore and Winston, the other six Blue Devils who played combined for just 13 points.
UNC's misery continues: A victory could have provided an element of joy to a season that has not gone according to plan for North Carolina. Instead, this game became the latest crushing blow in a season full of them. If not for the blown endings in regulation and overtime, there would have been several positive takeaways for the Tar Heels.
For one thing, Anthony and Garrison Brooks had their best combined effort in the three games since Anthony returned from missing 11 games due to knee surgery. Brooks, who led the team in scoring while Anthony was out but was quiet in the last two games, finished with 18 points and helped the Tar Heels build what seemed like a comfortable lead in the second half. North Carolina also got key baskets from graduate transfers Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce. Both have been spotty in their contributions to a lineup that has needed them this season. But they combined for 24 points on 10-of-16 shooting against Duke.
To top it off, reserve forward Walker Miller entered the game having played just 26 minutes all season. But he found himself on the court for the Tar Heels in overtime as the lead changed hands. His free-throw with 2:32 left put UNC up 92-91. Miller's clutch contributions would have made for a great story. Instead, there is only agony for the Tar Heels after one of the most crushing losses imaginable.