UNC earns redemption with win against Duke

Joel Berry scored 28 points while Isaiah Hicks was the difference-maker the Tar Heels lacked in Durham last month, as coach Roy Williams team avenged an earlier loss to Duke with a 90-83 rivalry victory

Bob Donnan—USA Today Sports
Mar 4

CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina’s 90-83 win against Duke at the Smith Center on Saturday wasn’t about the outright ACC regular season championship, rivalry bragging rights, sending out an accomplished senior class in style or even finishing the season undefeated at home. Even though all of those boxes were checked off and celebrated. For the Tar Heels, the latest back-and-forth, down-to-the-wire installment of college basketball’s best, most intense rivalry was first and foremost, an exercise in redemption. There was individual redemption for a player who felt he let his teammates and fans down the first time UNC played the Blue Devils last month and one that had to watch that earlier game from the sidelines because of an injury suffered at practice 24 hours earlier. Most of all, though, there was redemption for a team that saw its chances for victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium slip away on Feb. 9 by going the final three minutes without making a field goal. Joel Berry led the way by scoring 28 points while Isaiah Hicks was the difference-maker the Tar Heels lacked in Durham as coach Roy Williams’ team forced Duke into faltering down the stretch this time on the way to a victory that finished the regular season schedule in style. UNC (26-6, 14-4 ACC) will be the No. 1 seed at next week’s conference tournament in Brooklyn with a bye until Thursday’s quarterfinals while the loss drops the Blue Devils (23-8, 11-7) to No. 5, where they’ll be forced to start their postseason one day and one round earlier. “We knew we were the ACC champs,” Berry said, referring to the fact that UNC clinched the regular season title before the game ever started thanks to Notre Dame’s loss to Louisville earlier in the day. “But we just wanted to get revenge and we wanted to get better as a team. I think our guys did a great job of focusing in on the game today and this gives us a little confidence going into the ACC tournament.” Berry was openly apologetic in the locker room and on social media after the first Duke game following a performance in which he went just 2 of 7 from 3-point range and missed two key free throws down the stretch. And he wasted little time making amends on Saturday. Berry came out firing, making his first 3-pointer 5½ minutes into the game, then following that up with a pullup jumper in the lane on the next possession. With his confidence building with every shot he took, the junior point guard made all five of his 3-point attempts in the first half to help his team to a 48-46 lead. Then, after a quiet start to the second half, Berry asserted himself when his team needed it most — scoring seven straight points to extend a two-point lead coming out of the final TV timeout to an 86-80 cushion with 34.2 seconds remaining. “I just tried to be more aggressive,” Berry said. “I just felt like at the start of the season I was being very aggressive and then I just kind of stopped. I just wanted to assert myself tonight. I told myself to be patient, my time will come. Next thing you know I started hitting shots.” Berry wasn’t the only Tar Heel that had to exercise a little patience. Hicks has been itching to get his shot at the Blue Devils since pulling his hamstring while coming down from a dunk the day before the game in Durham. He’s also been looking to break out of a slump that has seen his play drop off considerably over the past few weeks, in part because of his inability to stay out of foul trouble. He did both on Saturday, picking up only two fouls while dominating Duke around the basket on the way to a 21-point, nine-rebound, 22-minute performance that helped UNC come out on top in a game that saw 23 lead changes and 14 ties. “I knew Isaiah was going to have a great game tonight,” fellow big man Kennedy Meeks said. “He’s had too many droughts these last couple of games here and I knew that it was his time. He did a tremendous job of giving us big-time buckets.” Hicks was especially effective of switches that left him with a mismatch inside against smaller defenders, usually Kennard. His work inside played a major role in the Tar Heels outscoring Duke 44-26 in the paint and 15-5 on second chance points — much larger margins than the first time around. “I was just taking advantage of what they were giving me,” Hicks said. “A lot of times in the post there was a small guy on me because they switch a lot. Also, setting screens for Justin (Jackson) and Joel, left me open because (the defense) has to respect their shooting game.” While B