Court Vision: No. 15 North Carolina falls at No. 4 Duke in overtime thriller

There was seemingly no way North Carolina-Duke could live up to the hype -- except that it did, as the Tar Heels lost to the Blue Devils in an overtime thriller and a very well-played game.

DURHAM, N.C. — When a game like the Carolina-Duke game is hyped as much as this one is, it’s almost always impossible to live up to. And of course, it doesn’t always. But this time, it not only lived up to the hype — it exceeded it and was one of the better games of the college basketball season so far. No. 15 North Carolina (18-8, 8-5 ACC) erased a deficit, took a 10-point lead and then lost it, and ultimately fell in regulation at No. 4 Duke (23-3, 10-3 ACC) in a game for the ages.

1. Duke continues to find ways to win games late

It’s happened before and will probably happen again. Duke faced a big deficit late that it looked like the Blue Devils couldn’t bounce back from, and yet again, erased it.

It’s just difficult to kill the Blue Devils, and that’s been particularly true ever since the moment that they got win No. 1,000 for head coach Mike Krzyzewski against St. John’s — down 10 in that game, too — and then again at Virginia, and at Syracuse. Deficits, all erased.

Most of them have come on the road, which is crazy when you think about the youth of Duke’s team. But all it takes sometimes is one.

For instance, North Carolina is still searching for its first win against a big-time opponent, even though it’s been close — Notre Dame, especially, and playing very well at times at Kentucky. But still nothing beyond wins over Louisville at home and Ohio State on a neutral floor. Duke now knows what it can do in the clutch and has real, tangible proof. That matters.

"The two losses that we had against State and Miami, I think when we got down, we started playing tight. We started wishing shots in and not shooting confidently. Against St. John’s is where it started — when we were down, we just believed in each other and shot our shots," senior guard Quinn Cook said.

Tyus Jones, Duke’s freshman point guard, has been a big player in a lot of those comebacks. And he was again in this one, scoring nine of his 22 points in the final 1:25 when Duke was down by seven points. He scored Duke’s final nine points himself.

"Well, he’s good. So. You start out with that. One of the reasons we waited three years to get him is because he, I thought he had special qualities, not just special talents," Krzyzewski said. "It shows up in big games and big moments.

"Sometimes, he would rather have someone else do it. But when — he took the wheel, the car finished in first place. It was tremendous."

Duke still has plenty of issues, but so do most teams in the country. They’ve shown, if nothing else, that they’re tough, poised and maybe even clutch.

2. This will be a tough pill for North Carolina to swallow, but there are some positives to take away

The Tar Heels aren’t in this for moral victories, nor should they be. But it was a big deal for them to play this well, particularly after falling behind early, and retake the lead, and even control, of the game.

UNC’s Marcus Paige wasn’t hearing it.

"I feel horrible in the fact that we should’ve won the game and closed it out and didn’t," Paige said.

"We played well enough to win the game and we didn’t quite make the plays that we needed to to finish it out. I don’t think we’re very pleased with just hanging in there. It’s not about just hanging in there or playing well against a top-five team. We think we’re good enough to compete against anybody, and this is a prime example of that. We just didn’t finish the game."

Duke made some plays down the stretch, yes, but the Tar Heels certainly helped. And it’s likely going to haunt them for awhile. But if they can bounce back mentally, there are positives that go beyond moral victories.

The main positive is that the Tar Heels got something positive from nearly everyone who played, including J.P. Tokoto, who finished with 15 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, three steals and two blocks in 37 minutes. It was one of his best games of the season, if not his best.

He wasn’t perfect, but he was dialed in and often made good decisions with the basketball, something that has been far from a given in recent games after he was benched. The Tar Heels need that Tokoto to keep showing up.

They weren’t thinking about that in the North Carolina locker room after the game, which looked as close as you’ll see to an NCAA locker room after a loss.

"Right now, it burns so much. You’ve just got to respond and play well the next game," Paige said. He sighed. "But this one would’ve been nice."

3. This tightens up the ACC race considerably

At one point, Virginia had a pretty significant lead on the field, but now the Cavaliers are 12-1 — a loss to Duke their only conference blemish. The Blue Devils are 10-3. All it would take is two more losses by Virginia and Duke is right back in it. And without Justin Anderson, Virginia is certainly vulnerable. Duke’s toughest game remaining is at North Carolina.

North Carolina took a loss, but so did Louisville, and now those two teams are tied at 8-5 with both desperately needing a win against a top-tier team. Neither have one, save splitting with each other.

Notre Dame has just four ACC games remaining and is 11-3 in league play; the Irish would need Duke to take another loss to finish ahead of the Blue Devils by virtue of a tiebreaker (Duke’s win over Virginia), but they’re in very good position to finish in the top four.

So the final weeks of the season will come down to Duke putting pressure on Virginia to finish strongly for that top spot, and who among Louisville and North Carolina can do enough to squeak into that top-four spot and get the double bye in the ACC Tournament.

A race that once seemed over now has plenty of mystery left.

2-for-14 vs. 19-of-39 — North Carolina’s two freshmen were a combined 2-of-14 from the floor for five points, while Duke’s four freshmen combined for 19-of-39 shooting and 52 points (22 from Jones).

2-of-11, 1-of-3, 5 points — That was Marcus Paige’s final line against Duke, in addition to five rebounds, three assists, two turnovers and no free-throw attempts in 34 minutes. Cook vowed to take Paige out of the game and for the most part, he did.

15-of-20, 36 points, 19 rebounds — That was the combined stat line of North Carolina’s starting frontcourt. Add in Joel James off the bench and it was 18-of-24 for 42 points and 24 rebounds. North Carolina finished with 62 points in the paint.