Roy Williams was nearing the end of his Senior Night speech to Joel Berry and Theo Pinson after Tuesday’s loss to Miami when a voice from the Smith Center crowd abruptly interrupted him.
“Let’s beat Duke,” the fan yelled.
“I don’t care about that,” the North Carolina basketball coach shot back. “I’m honoring these guys right there. We want to beat every-freaking-body.”
Williams’ competitiveness is genuine. But while maintaining that the two regular season games against Duke each year don’t mean any more or less to the Tar Heels than any other games on the schedule, he acknowledged that the matchup is “a rivalry like no other.”
It’s a rivalry that will have more than bragging rights on the line when the Tar Heels and Blue Devils renew their hostilities at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday.
As the final game of the ACC regular season, the outcome will go a long way toward determining the seedings and the all-important double byes to next week’s conference tournament in Brooklyn. It could also potentially decide which of the neighboring rivals will be selected to play the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament in Charlotte rather than a venue farther away.
With both teams coming off losses, it will also help set the tone for both teams as they look to build momentum heading into the rapidly approaching postseason.
“There’s a sense of urgency everytime we play,” Williams said Thursday. “You add the fact that both of us lost, that makes it a greater sense of urgency. The rest of the stuff, I don’t think we think about.”
The Tar Heels’ loss to Miami on Tuesday was especially hard to stomach because of the way it came about.
Trailing by as many as 16 in the second half, they rallied to tie the score on a dramatic 3-pointer by Berry with 4.1 seconds remaining. But instead of going to overtime, UNC’s already emotional Senior Night was spoiled when the Hurricanes’ Ja’Quan Newton hit a game-winning halfcourt shot at the buzzer.
As heartbreaking as the result might have been, junior forward Luke Maye said it didn’t take the Tar Heels long to get over it because of who they’ll be playing next.
“I don’t think it lingers,” said Maye, who had 15 points and eight rebounds in UNC’s 82-78 win against Duke on Feb. 8. “We have an experienced team and a coach that’s one of the best in the business. He’s always going to prepare us for what we have coming up.”
The Tar Heels and Blue Devils are no strangers with one another, having played just three weeks ago.
But because of Duke’s switch to a zone defense since that earlier meeting, a move predicated by an injury to star big man Marvin Bagley III, coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team will have a different look from the first game.
It’s a change that doesn’t concern Berry.
“I think that plays into our hands because when you’re playing a zone, it’s hard to box out people,” the senior guard said, noting that despite a decided height disadvantage, UNC still managed to outrebound Duke 44-38 in the first game. “We need to make sure we’re going to the boards, because they’re athletic and they’re long down there on the bottom three.”
While the Tar Heels will have their hands full trying to contain Bagley and fellow freshman big man Wendell Carter Jr., the Blue Devils figure to have just as much trouble matching up with the Tar Heels’ array of perimeter threats.
It’s a clash of styles that will present an intriguing chess match between two Hall of Fame coaches.
But as far as UNC senior Pinson is concerned, it’s the players that will make the biggest difference between who wins and who doesn’t.
“Both teams need it. Both teams want it. It wouldn’t be any different if we both came in undefeated,” Pinson said. “It’s Carolina-Duke. It’s always going to be a tough game. It’s always going to be a fight.”