Familiar motivation fuels Tar Heels in Duke rematch

UNC looks to bounce back from its loss at Virginia and start another long postseason run with a rivalry victory that would clinch the outright ACC regular season title

Mark Dolejs—X02835
Feb 9

CHAPEL HILL — There was a palpable sense of deja vu on Monday as North Carolina’s team bus pulled away from John Paul Jones Arena after suffering a disheartening loss to Virginia.Exactly one year ago to the day, last Feb. 27, the Tar Heels were also beaten by the Cavaliers.That night, coach Roy Williams got up in front of his players on the ride to the airport and told them to put the result behind them quickly because they still controlled their own destiny in the race for the ACC’s regular season title.UNC responded by beating Syracuse and Duke to clinch the crown and begin a winning streak that took it all the way to the national championship game a month later. The Hall of Fame coach can only hope that history repeats itself again as his Tar Heels look to bounce back from this latest loss and start another long postseason run.”I was disappointed last year at Virginia, but I think I was more disappointed in the way we played this year,” Williams said of the 53-43 loss in which UNC was held to its lowest scoring output of the shot clock era. “There are some similarities. But we’ll have to wait another week or two or three or four or five or six to see what happens.”It’s a familiar journey that begins on Saturday with the traditional season-ending rivalry matchup with Duke. Just as they did a year ago, the Tar Heels (25-6, 13-4 ACC) can wrap up the outright league crown with a win against the Blue Devils.That in itself should be motivation enough to bring out the best in UNC, especially since it’s also Senior Night at the Smith Center and the Tar Heels will be looking to avenge their loss to Duke the first time the teams met three weeks ago.But just in case, leading scorer Justin Jackson said that the egg he and his teammates laid in Charlottesville was an eye-opening reminder of the dangers associated with taking success for granted.”They just played harder and had more intensity,” Jackson said of the Cavaliers. “We realize that we had to come out and play each game as hard as we possibly could. I think last game kind of did that. I know it did for myself. I think it did for pretty much everybody on the team. We can use it as the same motivation as we did last year.”While UNC might have taken Virginia lightly after having beat it by 24 points at home just nine days earlier, there’s little chance of that happening against Duke. That’s because the Tar Heels faltered down the stretch in an 86-78 loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 9 that saw them go the final three minutes without making a field goal.Adding to the frustration of the setback was the way the Blue Devils neutralized UNC’s height advantage inside. Not only did they hold usually reliable big man Kennedy Meeks to subpar totals of nine points and five boards, they also accomplished something only two other teams have done this season by outrebounding the nation’s top rebounding team.It’s an effort that was aided by the absence of power forward Isaiah Hicks, who missed the game with a pulled hamstring suffered the day before in practice. Hicks is back for the rematch.Even though he hasn’t played nearly as well since returning from his injury as he did before it, in part because of his inability to stay out of foul trouble, Meeks is looking to his fellow big man to be the x-factor that prevents the Tar Heels from experiencing another case of deja vu.The senior center said that having Hicks back on the court will give Duke “two people they have to worry about” on offense. More important, he’ll be give his team another defensive option to try and stop the Blue Devils’ freshman star Jayson Tatum — who scored all 19 points in the decisive second half.”I think it will be a lot different,” Meeks said. “I just think Isaiah, of course, has to stay out of foul trouble and then he’ll be fine. But I don’t see it going like it did last time.”