Friedlander: Payback in Chapel Hill ... Duke's season sweep may just have burst UNC's bubble
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Nothing can truly erase the disappointment and hurt those around the Duke basketball program felt a year ago at this time when rival North Carolina came to Cameron Indoor Stadium and spoiled coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game.
Then sent him into retirement by winning the rematch at the Final Four.
So what happened at Smith Center on Saturday wasn’t exactly payback.
But if things continue in the direction they’re headed for both traditional ACC blue bluebloods, it might come close.
The Blue Devils didn’t just earn a season sweep of the Tar Heels and secure an all-important double-bye to the upcoming ACC Tournament with their gritty 62-57 victory on the Tar Heels’ Senior Night.
They also nudged their hated rival 1 step closer to becoming the 1st preseason No. 1 ever to go uninvited to the NCAA Tournament.
That, at least publicly, is the least of Duke’s concerns. Junior point guard Jeremy Roach, the only Blue Devil regular to have played in last year’s games, said he and his young teammates are too excited about what’s in front of them to worry about looking back.
The sounds coming from behind the doors of their locker room before they were opened to the media told a much different story.
Roach and his young teammates are taking great satisfaction from potentially bursting UNC’s NCAA bubble.
“NIT! NIT! NIT!” they chanted before drenching coach Jon Scheyer with water.
There’s a good chance the Tar Heels (19-12, 11-9 ACC) would decline a bid to college basketball’s consolation tournament if they don’t make it into the NCAA’s field of 68.
But that will all be decided next week in Greensboro.
The only way UNC can take the decision out of the hands of the NCAA selection committee and avoid having to decide whether or not to continue playing is to win 4 games in as many days and cut down the nets as conference champions.
“It’s just something we’ve got to do,” star big man Armando Bacot, who posted yet another double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds in a losing effort. “We have no other choice.”
Bacot and the Tar Heels could have greatly enhanced their postseason chances by beating the Blue Devils on Saturday. But as was the case in the earlier meeting on Feb. 4, they faltered down the stretch while Duke made the plays necessary to win a close game.
The turning point on this occasion came with just over 8 minutes remaining.
UNC had scored 7 straight points to take a 49-45 lead and send the sellout Smith Center crowd into a frenzy.
The momentum quickly faded though with a pair of defensive lapses, sandwiched by Scheyer’s decision to put defensive ace Dereck Lively II back into the game despite having 4 fouls.
The Blue Devils outscored the Tar Heels 17-8 the rest of the way, punctuated by a clutch driving layup by Roach with 48 seconds remaining.
This was too cold @Jeremyroach10 🥶🥶🥶🥶🥶🥶 pic.twitter.com/r3IGIqqlB2
— Duke Men’s Basketball (@DukeMBB) March 5, 2023
The scenario has been a recurring nightmare for coach Hubert Davis. And not only because the scores of the 2 losses to Duke were nearly identical – 63-57 in Durham, 62-57 in Chapel Hill. In both games, the Blue Devils held the Tar Heels without a field goal for the final 4 minutes of the game.
“I felt like it was very similar to a number of our games,” Davis said. “It’s been a consistent theme all year where in that time where it’s a great opportunity to extend (a lead), we haven’t been able to do it.
“I wouldn’t say it’s consistent with the 1st Duke game over in Durham. I’d probably say it’s more consistent with the close losses we’ve suffered this year.”
The fact that the Tar Heels haven’t learned from their mistakes, despite the experience on their roster and the advanced stage of the season, is a visible source of frustration for Davis.
His coaching counterpart Jon Scheyer, however, couldn’t be more pleased with the growth of his young team.
The Blue Devils (23-8, 14-6) took their lumps early.
Like UNC, they dropped out of the rankings after starting the season at No. 7. They lost close games, lost on the road and had to fight their way through a series of key injuries.
But instead of breaking them, the adversity made them tougher.
And the experience gained by freshmen Kyle Filipowski, Tyrese Proctor, Lively and Dariq Whitehead – not to mention their rookie head coach – has made them better..
The results speak for themselves. Saturday’s win was Duke’s 5th straight and 8th in their last 10 games.
Even though the Blue Devils is only the No. 4 seed in the ACC Tournament, a strong case can be made that they’re the team to beat once they get to Greensboro.
Not to mention the conference team most likely to advance deepest into the next tournament.
The one that really counts.
“Of course we want the double bye and that’s great,” Scheyer said. “I think what’s more important is what we’ve done as a team. Sticking together. Since the last time we played (UNC) the last time, I’m proud of what we’ve done.
“This was a physical game and we had to do some things to gut it out. But now we need to refocus, understanding that postseason is a different animal. It’s 1-and-done time and there’s a lot to learn from that. But the belief is there for us. And that’s as important as anything.”
Almost as important as the satisfaction that comes from paying back a debt, at least partially, owed to a heated rival.