Court Vision: Duke takes 2 in season series vs. Tar Heels

Duke center Jahlil Okafor and guard Quinn Cook react as the Blue Devils won Game 2 of the rivalry series over the North Carolina Tar Heels.

Bob Donnan/Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — No. 3 Duke (28-3, 15-3 ACC) finished its ACC season by sweeping No. 19 North Carolina (21-10, 11-7) by a final of 84-77, this one a bit more convincingly than the first meeting. It was not quite the game that the overtime thriller in Durham was, but it was still a close, competitive game that came down to which team made plays at the end. As it’s been most of this season, that team was Duke.

Three-Point Take

1. Duke’s backcourt continues to be utterly dominant — especially in big games

Senior guard Quinn Cook has been a steadying presence for the Blue Devils all year as a leader, but he’s been more than that. He’s been arguably their best player the most consistently in ACC play. Big game, small game, medium game — it doesn’t really matter. He’s been there.

So much so that Jahlil Okafor, the freshman who could take home National Player of the Year honors, called Cook "the heart" of the team.

And yet, in a sense, he has been overshadowed. With the way freshman point guard Tyus Jones has played on a national stage — including two of his 20-point games in ACC play coming against North Carolina — and with the way Justise Winslow has played, not to mention Okafor, Cook is a bit of an afterthought. But he doesn’t mind.

"That’s how my life is. I’ve always been overlooked. I’ve always been too small, not athletic enough," Cook said. "So I’m used to it. Our four freshmen are our most talented players. I know Coach K had the confidence in me, so I wasn’t worried about anybody else outside."

"It’s hard for me to quantify just how much his leadership has meant," Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "It’s been the key factor. He makes it okay for all those guys to be who they are. They look to him. He’s been tough the entire time.

"Really, it started with his acceptance of how we were going to use him with Tyus coming in. What a great example of okay, is that good for the team? And then he’s carried that forward. And in addition to that, he’s been an All-Conference player. Quinn’s been a great player this year, not just a great leader."

In two games against North Carolina now, he and Jones have combined for 88 points (44 in each game) on 26-of-57 shooting. They had 11 assists to nine turnovers in the first meeting, but combined for eight assists to just one turnover in this one.

And they did what they do well — Cook made baskets when his team needed them. Jones, meanwhile, took over the game in the halfcourt with his ability to penetrate. The freshman finished with 24 points on 5-of-10 shooting, and he made all 12 of his free throws, many late and pressure-packed.

"He never shies away from the moment. I’ve said this repeatedly this season — the bigger the moment, the bigger he is. For me, I was just trying to set screens and then get out of his way," Amile Jefferson said. "Once he gets that running start going downhill, he just plays basketball. He’s either going to make a really good pass or he’s going to finish. He’s a tough, tough player and that’s what you want in your point guard — someone who’s tough, a leader, talks and then in big moments, they make big plays."

2. North Carolina’s main players, for the most part, showed up — but it wasn’t enough

North Carolina, as it would turn out, got the kind of production it needed from its best two players — Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson. In the first meeting, only Johnson showed up as Quinn Cook helped hold Paige to just five points. But in this game, Paige — who’s been dealing with plantar fasciitis all season, and said after the Georgia Tech game that he felt more like himself than ever — looked like himself in this one with 23 points (tied for his most in ACC play).

Paige just moved crisper than he had in the past, and was even able to hit contested 3s, something it’s felt like he wasn’t able to do all year.

It took him some time to get going, but he had 17 of his team’s 44 second-half points on 4-of-7 shooting. Johnson, meanwhile, backed up what will likely be an All-ACC (one of the three teams, anyway) level season with 17 points and 7 rebounds. He was fiery, passionate and played hard.

The rest of North Carolina looked lost at times, but there have been plenty of games where neither Paige nor Johnson were playing well at the same time, and so it’s something. But it’s not nearly enough for the Tar Heels — not anymore.

"We thought we had opportunities in both (Duke) games," Paige said. "It’s not okay to just hang with a team. We’re not in it for that. We expect to win the game when we are on the floor."

The Tar Heels might get a chance in a rematch, but with as up and down as they’ve been this year, that’s a big ‘if’.

3. In the battle of the benches, surprisingly, North Carolina’s longer one lost

North Carolina’s bench outscored Duke’s 27-10, but it wasn’t that simple. Down the stretch, when both teams needed plays and North Carolina was getting ready to deliver the kill shot, Duke’s bench and its role players simply would not let them.

When Tyus Jones went out with back spasms and Justise Winslow was already out with foul trouble at the 12:56 mark, it seemed like North Carolina was just going to keep building on its lead and the momentum was on its side.

Except Duke went on an 8-2 run and took all the momentum back. And it wasn’t just bench guys — it was Cook, plus four of Duke’s role players, essentially. Freshman Grayson Allen and Marshall Plumlee don’t see a ton of minutes, even though Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones do (but they’re not asked to score).

While they were in the game, they got Duke the lead back when the Blue Devils had been down by seven. Then the starters came back in and extended it, but it all started with them.

"Sometimes, things just happen. It’s not coaching — they make it happen. Like Matt (Jones). He only has one bucket in the game. We’re down 51-50, and he steps back and knocks that thing down. I love that, that he knows that we have enough confidence in him and he knows enough confidence in him to take it," Krzyzewski said.

"My staff said ‘Let’s get Jah in (after the media timeout)’ and I said, ‘No. These guys — we’re winning because of those guys. Let’s keep them in.’ The other thing is, you never know — this game we felt like would be like a big-time NCAA Tournament game, because we think Carolina can beat anybody."

North Carolina did have an odd lineup on the court at times, where freshmen Joel Berry and Theo Pinson spent a lot of time out there, they struggled to gain any real traction on Duke. Then Duke started using some full-court pressure. But at the 13:33 mark, North Carolina had a five-point lead. By the time the starters came back in, it felt like it was too late.

Turnovers, bad shots and mistakes led to a general loss of poise. If North Carolina was trying to steal minutes for some of its main players, then it picked an unfortunate time to do that. And Duke was fortunate that when it needed its so-called lesser guys, they responded well. North Carolina’s, though, didn’t.

Stats That Matter

11 offensive rebounds, 6 second-chance points: North Carolina thrives on the offensive glass, and did in the first meeting. But not this time, as Duke limited them to six second-chance points.

From 62 to 28: North Carolina had 62 points in the paint in the first meeting with Duke, and just 28 this time around. The Tar Heels were 14-of-25 shooting from the paint, but didn’t get nearly as many easy looks there.

Straight Talk

"I’ve dreamed of it." — Krzyzewski, jokingly, when asked whether it was surreal to get a standing ovation in the Smith Center

"I was just hoping that he was okay. That was my only thought. I asked him, I said, ‘You’re going to be back, right?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I will.’ When he said that, I knew he was going to be okay. … I just couldn’t imagine him sitting out the rest of that game." — Jahlil Okafor on Jones’ injury in the second half