As postseason looms, win over Duke a reminder that UNC has unfinished business

Sunday March 5th, 2017

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — To review, Duke and North Carolina played an extremely good basketball game Saturday night. Michael Jordan took the floor at halftime and shared interesting philosophical views regarding ceilings and roofs. Grayson Allen took inordinate heat from the Smith Center crowd before the game even began, then took his elbow to the face of a Tar Heels player to earn a technical foul, then hit a couple big shots, then missed some free throws, all of it whiplashing 21,750 people between rage and a delight that was actually also kind of rage-like. The Blue Devils’ Luke Kennard hit two bank-shot jumpers on the way to a 28-point effort that doubled as an ACC Player of the Year statement. The Tar Heels’ Joel Berry didn’t miss any of his five three-point tries and piled up 28 propulsive points of his own. The lead changed hands 23 times. There were 14 ties. As ever, the programs met twice this year, and two better games may not have been played anywhere.

The result this time was North Carolina 90, Duke 83. The roadmap it offered to both for the postseason to come was simple and utterly the same.

Just do that again.

“My guys played well,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “And I’m sure [North Carolina coach Roy Williams] will say his guys played well. You saw a game where a lot of guys played well. That’s it. Sometimes it’s not nuclear science.”

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The parsing of game film will give rise to imperfections and corrections before the ACC tournament, but that’s more reflex than reflection of what went on Saturday. The Tar Heels commemorated a regular-season league title by cutting down their own nets, and they appear convincingly equipped to repeat the ritual at least one or two more times. The Blue Devils emerged from another rash of injuries with a lineup that at least vaguely resembled the one that had people heaving championship expectations their way, and that group nearly beat a future No. 1 seed on the road. The game mattered in the way Duke-North Carolina always matters, but it mattered in the more substantial way of addressing a nagging suspicion that both sides entered the postseason with something to prove.

Although it is not exactly a suspicion with the Tar Heels. Berry flung the ball into the air at the buzzer and the team smiled and laughed through the net-cutting that kept them on the floor until nearly 11 p.m. local time, and you might not have realized they were precisely 11 months removed from the worst basketball moment of their lives. Which was fine. North Carolina remembers well enough for everyone else.

By now it’s plainly clear that an entire season was played to rectify the end of the season that came before it. The Tar Heels’ capacity to win the national championship is not news. Their disposition is the intriguing part. At some point, you might have expected North Carolina to let go of the agony of last year’s title game loss to Villanova, to stick to the stay-in-the-moment mantra that most programs espouse. But the moment just wouldn’t let the Tar Heels escape. It was there at the start of the season. “Yeah we made it to the championship, we had a great run,” forward Justin Jackson said, recalling the primary undercurrent of preseason workouts. “But you’re not just going to walk back. You’re not just going to win it because you’re North Carolina.”

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And it was here again at the end, two days before Duke even arrived. A return to March returned the Tar Heels to that place; a place where a rival was almost just an accessory for a larger purpose, the latest means to achieving a greater end, in every sense. “We all have to remember that we didn’t win it,” forward Theo Pinson deadpanned before a Thursday practice. “We lost. We got to the national championship game but we didn’t complete all our goals. We did everything else. And we’re in the same driver’s seat as we were last time. We need to win this game on Saturday, go into the ACC tournament [for a] business trip. We just all have to keep realizing we didn’t win the national championship last year.”

Against Duke, the Tar Heels certainly made the better of the night’s two public statements about potential.

To memorialize an apparel deal with his alma mater’s football program, Michael Jordan took the floor at halftime and thanked the crowd for the ovation and the hospitality. “The ceiling is the roof,” Jordan then said of his brand’s new partnership, and turning back the clock was suddenly very much on everyone’s mind. Fortunately for the Smith Center patrons, the current batch of North Carolina players offered a less perplexing commentary on possibility. Isaiah Hicks, inconsistent for almost a month, reasserted himself with 21 points and nine rebounds. Where Jackson struggled (6 of 17 shooting, just 1 of 7 from long range), Berry II more than compensated. The defense triggered just in time, limiting the Blue Devils to 36.7% shooting in the second half. A reinvigorating effort against this opponent was auspicious for a team unable to stop looking back as it forged ahead.

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“This puts us in a great mindset,” Berry said. “That’s what happened last year—we lost to Virginia, beat Duke over at Duke, and we had our momentum carry over.”

It was, meanwhile, time to stop wondering about Duke. For a lot of reasons.

To begin with, the entire year has been spent wondering about the Blue Devils as they navigated injuries and controversies and Krzyzewski’s absence due to back surgery. It’s now a waste of energy to calculate if Duke will be the Duke everyone expected them to be; either that team will show up when it truly matters, at some NCAA tournament site in a little less than two weeks, or it won’t.

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It almost didn’t matter if that team showed up Saturday—“I would hope we’re at our best, then—in a week and a half,” Krzyzewski said the day before the game—because that team has shown up intermittently only to vanish again. So approach a consonant effort against the Tar Heels with a cautious optimism. Four starters scored in double figures. Allen’s recent ankle injury seemed a non-factor; the junior came off the bench to produce 14 points in 23 minutes. His first-half technical foul—the product of raising his elbow into the face of North Carolina’s Brandon Robinson on a drive, just as Allen flopped his head back to draw a foul—was in an odd way confirmation that he was as combative as ever. “It’s a physical game, and when you’re body to body, that kind of play happens,” Allen said. “There was no intent behind it.”

The rotation is still dauntingly limited, and it’s difficult to envision Duke consistently winning when two of the seven players who log double-digit minutes (Matt Jones and Harry Giles on this night) combine for one point. Then again, this was a tie game with six minutes left. “Grayson’s been hurt, and tonight he played really good, I thought,” Blue Devils forward Amile Jefferson said. “Frank [Jackson] had another good game. Luke is unstoppable. So we have guys that are dynamic. And we compete. We were fighting. We just have to be a little bit smarter.”

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The faults were small enough to seem insignificant. Krzyzewski opened his postgame remarks by noting that both teams were worthy of winning both of their meetings this season, and he wasn’t wrong. “It was a big-time game,” Williams declared. Duke and North Carolina indeed can enter the postseason feeling assured, so long as they do to everyone else what they did to each other on Saturday. The Blue Devils showed enough to suggest they can be something like the team everyone expected them to be this year. The Tar Heels again demonstrated they can be the team they were a year ago. After a raucous, pulse-racing night of very good basketball, there wasn’t a compelling reason to put a ceiling or a roof on anything.

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