The loud hum of airborne helicopters passing overhead late Thursday night could only mean one thing: that the fires burned on Franklin Street, that Chapel Hill was in a communal state of exaltation, that the Heels had beaten the Blue Devils.
At the Smith Center on Thursday, the Tar Heels put together arguably their most complete game since the onset of conference play, capping the night off with an emphatic dunk from the revelatory-of-late Theo Pinson, who once again brought a furious brand of play and was everywhere for the majority of the night.
That the Heels only won by four was indicative of both their first-half play, as the early minutes suggested an easy Blue Devils win in the offing, and Carolina’s less-than-stellar run at game’s end, which saw them unable to find the bottom of the net.
For much of the season, the common historical narratives of both teams have been turned on their head, with the typically physical, inside-heavy Heels doing much of their scoring from long range and the usually finesse, deep-ball-driven Blue Devils dominating in the paint. This was again the case, with thirty of Duke’s first-half points coming inside, while Carolina’s shooters—namely Kenny Williams—couldn’t miss from range.
Early on, that inside game came too easily for Duke. The Heels spent little time pressuring the ball, allowing their opponent to dish in the paint with ease and thrive on one-pass possessions.
Carolina righted the ship as the first half wore on and opened the second with a bang, coming out with a blistering pace, outscoring Duke 16–2 and simply out-hustling the Blue Devils for the rest of the second frame.
The Heels were all hands on deck in the defensive rebounding column, as most loose balls or errant rebounds found a single Duke rebounder outnumbered by two, three, or four Tar Heels.
By the late stages, Carolina’s defense had effectively forced Duke back into their historical role as a team that can shoot from range, encouraging a host of ill-advised and frankly ugly shots, while their offense forced the Blue Devils into enough foul trouble that Coach K’s team had to play something of a hands-off defense.
Two days later, the fires on Franklin Street might still have been smoldering when the team buses shoved off for a Raleigh date with their maybe/maybe-not rival Wolfpack.
Like the Smith Center on Thursday, PNC Arena was absolutely rocking for most of the day, in what was most likely a none-too-subtle response to Joel Berry’s claim that Duke is Carolina’s only true rival.
In a game of runs, Saturday’s contest was a back-and-forth boxing match, with Heels and Pack going punch-for-punch up and down the court for the first thirty-eight or so minutes. Unlike Thursday’s Duke matchup, which found UNC playing unabashed and emotional team basketball, Saturday’s game featured a marquee night from a marquee player.
Luke Maye ratcheted a career-high thirty-three points and pulled down seventeen boards, finding an unparalleled groove in the second half, during which he made twelve of fourteen shots.
While he carried the team all night, it wasn’t Maye who drove the final nail into the Pack’s coffin. Rather, it was a three from Kenny Williams with just over a minute left that sucked most of the air from the PNC Arena.
Regardless of Berry’s take, Saturday’s game provided the high-energy, nonstop excitement that the greatest rivalries in sports thrive on and always tend to deliver.
With late-season match-ups against Notre Dame, Louisville, Syracuse, Miami, and one last showdown in Durham, the Heels could, in theory, win out and head into the ACC tournament with as much steam as anyone.
That Duke lost two in a row is good news. That their second loss came at the hands of Carolina is great news.
While upcoming wins over Miami and Duke would propel them up the standings, I don’t see Carolina finishing the season anywhere north of twelfth or thirteenth in the Top 25. Of course, this season has been nothing short of pandemonium across the spectrum, which could benefit Carolina’s plight.
Otherwise, a win over Duke followed by a win over State likely resulting in a bump of least a few notches in the AP Top 25? Not much bad news to report here.