CHAPEL HILL — Wendell Moore made the winning shot as time expired in overtime to produce one of the most thrilling, improbable finishes in the history of the Duke-UNC basketball rivalry.
That’s saying something, considering how many improbable finishes and memorable game-winners there have been between these neighboring teams over the years.
But even though Moore’s name will take its rightful place on a list of honor that includes such luminaries as Austin Rivers, Walter Davis, Chris Duhon and Marvin Williams — among others — his put-back that gave the seventh-ranked Blue Devils a stunning 98-96 victory at Smith Center on Saturday will likely become little more than a footnote in history because of what happened before it.
That’s because when people talk about this game for years to come, the conversation will likely start and end with the play teammate Tre Jones made to extend the game past regulation.
With his team trailing by two and just 4.4 seconds remaining, the sophomore point guard deliberately missed the second of two free throws, tracked down the rebound and hit a contested jumper as time expired for the first of two stunning buzzer-beating baskets.
“To me, it really doesn’t matter what they talk about, really. All that matters is that we won the game,” said Moore, who finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds. “Tre did his thing, I did my thing and our whole team came to play.”
It didn’t always seem that way, though.
UNC (10-13, 3-9 ACC) led for 10 seconds shy of 42 minutes during a game that was, in many respects, its best effort of what is rapidly becoming a lost season.
But for all the Tar Heels did right, their inability to make a free throw, box out on a rebound or keep from turning the ball over under pressure in the final minute of both regulation and overtime ended up biting them in the end.
Duke (20-3, 10-2) made up a 10-point deficit in the final 2:06, then rallied from five down with just 20 seconds remaining in overtime to pull out the victory. It was almost a carbon copy of a similar loss to Clemson earlier this season, in which they let a 10-point lead slip away in the final 2:08 of regulation.
“It’s similar,” said UNC’s Christian Keeling. “But I think this one will hurt more, because we did everything right throughout the whole game.”
Almost everything, that is, including coach Roy Williams electing to foul with his team up by three and time running out instead of letting Jones get off a tying shot the way Clemson’s Aamir Simms did a month earlier.
But even that turned out to be a no-win situation for the Tar Heels.
Thanks to Jones.
After making his first free throw, the Duke star took a step or two to his right and intentionally bounced the ball hard off the front of the rim. Anticipating where the long rebound would go, he tracked down the loose ball.
Then, after UNC’s Andrew Platek nearly knocked it away from him, Jones shot a 15-footer over the outstretched hand of defender Cole Anthony to stun the both the Tar Heels and the sellout crowd of 21,500.
“The intentional free throw is something (assistant coach Jon) Scheyer and I have worked on,” Jones said. “Who knew we were going to be in that position? But we were in that position. I took a couple steps to the right, fired it off the rim and I felt like that was how it was going to come off. I went after it and just trusted my work in my mid-range and put up that shot.”
Jones, whose brother Tyus quarterbacked the Blue Devils to a national championship in 2015, scored his team’s final nine points in overtime and nine of its 14 points in the extra period on his way to a game-high 28, to go along with six assists and three steals.
He was also front-and-center in the final sequence of overtime that led to Moore’s game-winner.
First, he knocked the ball away from Platek on an inbounds pass, getting away with a lot of contact in the process, causing a turnover that gave Duke possession with 10 seconds left, trailing 96-95.
Then, as he had done so many times down the stretch, he attacked the basket and was fouled with six seconds to go. He made the first to tie the score then again missed the second.
This time not on purpose.
Moore tapped the rebound back out to Jones, but he missed his attempt at the game-winner. Moore however, was again in the right place at the right time when Keeling failed to box him out, leaving the freshman wing wide open for his moment of glory.
“It really hasn’t sunk in yet,” Moore said. “Even as the ball went in, I had no idea what to do. I was just so happy the ball went in. As a kid growing up in Charlotte, watching this game my whole life, it means a lot to play in it and even more to win it.”
Moore rejected the notion that his team stole one after trailing for much of the game, saying that the Blue Devils “earned everything we got tonight.”
The Tar Heels might beg to differ.
Despite 24 points and 11 rebounds from Anthony and a pair of big performances off the bench from Keeling (13 points) and fellow grad transfer Justin Pierce (11 points), UNC was its own worst enemy at the worst possible time.
Not only did it make just 55 percent of their free throws — missing 10 of their final 19 attempts — but it also committed four of its 18 turnovers while attempting to protect leads at the end of both regulation and overtime.
“Never once did I think we were going to lose that game,” Pierce said. “I don’t know. It just feels like I’m in a bad dream right now.”