Even in New York, UNC-Duke still takes center stage

Saturdays rivalry rubber match in the ACC tournament semifinals will mark the 21st time the Blue Devils and Tar Heels will have met in the leagues signature event and ensures that a state team will play for the championship for the 27th straig

Bob Donnan—USA Today Sports
North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams cuts down the net after winning the ACC regular season championship. The Tar Heels defeated the Blue Devils 90-83 at the Dean E. Smith Center.

BROOKLYN — Without even trying, North Carolina and Duke sent a powerful message to the ACC’s resident curmudgeon Jim Boeheim.

You can take the ACC tournament out of the Old North State, but at least for now, you still can’t take the Old North State out of the ACC tournament.

Even when it’s played in New York City.

While the cranky Syracuse coach is already back home upstate, telling kids to get off his lawn and longing for his good old days in the Big East, North Carolina and Duke will play each other Friday at Barclays Center with a trip to the tournament final on the line.

It will mark the 21st time the rivals will have met in the ACC’s signature event, a matchup that ensures a state team will play for the championship for the 27th straight year dating back to 1990.

“It’s going to be a special game,” Duke captain Amile Jefferson said after his fifth-seeded Blue Devils held up their end of the bargain with an 81-77 quarterfinal win against Louisville on Thursday. The top-seeded Tar Heels advanced earlier in the day with a 78-53 dismantling of Miami.

“It’s always great to play in a Duke-North Carolina game because of all the history that’s been in it. I think it’s going to be a great game. I think it’s going to be a fight, pretty much.”

The two regular season matchups between the ACC’s resident blue bloods turned out to be just that, with each team winning on its home court.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils took the first game 86-78 at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 9 when freshman Jayson Tatum took over in the second half and the Tar Heels faltered down the stretch. Three weeks later at the Smith Center, Roy Williams’ team evened the score by riding Joel Berry’s hot shooting to a 90-83 victory that saw Duke stumble late.

As intense as those games were, Friday’s tournament semifinal rematch promises to be even more of a high octane struggle than usual because of the potential championship stakes involved.

It’s a prospect Williams was already trying to play down even before he knew his team would be matched up against the neighboring Blue Devils.

“We’re fortunate to beat Miami,” he said. Miami’s got 11 wins in the ACC and I hope that (Selection) Sunday is a great day for them as well. But … whoever wins (between Duke and Louisville), is who we’ll play.”

Though the Tar Heels hold a 12-8 lead in the previous 20 tournament meetings, Duke has won the last five since an 83-68 UNC victory in 1998 in Greensboro. Friday’s rubber game in Brooklyn will be the first time they’ve played outside of the regular season since 2011.

Because it’s been so long since they last met in the tournament, even an upperclassman like Duke’s Matt Jones isn’t sure what to expect or how different the style of play might be once the best, most intense rivalry in college basketball is renewed in the postseason.

“I’ve never played in them in the ACC tournament, so it’s new to me just like the freshmen,” Jones said. “I guess there’s no difference. We’re just excited that we just beat a really good Louisville team. We’ll worry about North Carolina soon enough.”

The biggest difference between the upcoming game and the two UNC and Duke have already played could potentially be the fatigue factor. As the regular season champion and No. 1 seed, the Tar Heels got a bye all the way into the quarterfinals while the Blue Devils had to play an extra game.

“This is the second year in a row we’ve had the double bye and obviously that makes it a lot easier,” UNC senior guard Nate Britt said. “Teams were already playing one or two games before we even got out here. So for us to be able to rest our legs and get that kind of recovery time helps a lot.”

Five Duke players logged 30 or more minutes in Wednesday’s second round 79-72 win against Clemson. Three of them, Tatum, Luke Kennard and Frank Jackson, also played at least 28 minutes against Louisville.

Although it’s possible the Blue Devils could eventually get worn down from playing three games on consecutive days, Krzyzewski said the atmosphere in Barclay’s Center could be enough to carry his team through.

“For me,” he said, “energy produces energy.” And there’s nothing in the ACC — or college basketball — that produces more energy than a Duke-UNC showdown. Especially one being played in the media capital of the world.

“They’re a great program. We’re a great program,” Krzyzewski said, “We’re accustomed to playing in buildings that have a lot of energy, for or against them. That’s why kids go to those schools, to be in those moments. … I’m so happy to be a part of it and been a part of it for 42 years.”