Blue Devils, Heels meet with seasons on the line

The winner may not be in, but the loser will be in trouble

Matthew Hurt and Duke will need a win at UNC on Saturday to keep alive any hopes of an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. (Robert Franklin / AP Photo)

In basketball, the term “dagger” usually refers to a late-game shot that, for all intents and purposes, ends the trailing team’s hopes of a comeback. Not only does it turn the math from “it could happen” to “time to foul,” it usually provides a heartbreaking shift in momentum.

The 3-pointer with a minute left that turns a four-point lead into seven? That’s a dagger.

Saturday’s rematch between North Carolina and Duke is shaping up to be a dagger game for both teams. The Tar Heels and Blue Devils are used to closing out the regular season with an NCAA one-seed or ACC regular season title on the line.

The Blue Devils were 11-9 before playing Georgia Tech after press time. Carolina is 15-9 and has played one good half in the last three games. A win over their archrival likely doesn’t get either team into the NCAA Tournament, but a loss almost assuredly ends any hopes of an at-large bid.

When the teams met a month ago, in Durham, it represented a low point for the rivalry that’s usually contested at the top of the sport. Both teams were unranked since 1950. Carolina and Duke then both lost the game leading into their matchup, the first time that happened to the unranked rivals for the first time since 1950, three years before the birth of the ACC.

A month later, things are marginally better for both teams.

Carolina beat Duke but has split the six games since. The high points include a 45-point blowout of a Louisville team that was missing key players due to COVID tracing and a comeback from a 16-point deficit to beat ACC leader Florida State.

The low points have been dismal indeed: The Heels mustered 48 points in a loss at Virginia. They were upset at home by Marquette in a game hastily added to the schedule to get Carolina another home win heading into Selection Sunday. Instead, Carolina seemed to sleepwalk through the game in a funk that lasted into the first half against FSU.

The Tar Heels will once again be heading into the Duke game coming off a loss after getting knocked off by Syracuse in another lackluster, turnover-prone game on Monday night. It’s the first time since 2007 that the Tar Heels played Duke in both regular season games after losing the game before.

Including the loss in the first tangle with the Tar Heels, Duke has gone 4-3 down the stretch. The Blue Devils appeared to have figured things out after freshman Jalen Johnson left the team, winning four straight games, including blowouts of NC State and Wake Forest on the road and Syracuse at home. The Blue Devils also beat then-ACC leading Virginia by one.

Duke also got upset at home by Notre Dame and, in the most recent game, lost to Louisville in overtime.

The Blue Devils have won two of their last five home games. They’ve lost five times at Cameron Indoor this season, their most home losses since the 1983 team went 11-17 and had a young Mike Krzyzewski worried about his job.

Walker Kessler has emerged as another option in the paint for the Tar Heels. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

As is fitting for a dagger game, neither team seems to match up particularly well against the other. North Carolina has struggled to defend the three all season. Duke has been hot from three recently but isn’t one of the nation’s best outside shooting teams. The Blue Devils shot just 4-of-21 from three against Louisville.

Carolina has also struggled with ball security, turning the ball over more than a quarter of the time each of the past three games. Duke, however, has not been able to find any consistency on defense this season. The Blue Devils haven’t been able to force turnovers and spur their fast break, and Coach K even resorted to playing a zone for large portions of the year.

With rosters packed with freshmen, both teams have improved as the year has gone on, but both have also been plagued by inconsistency.

Both teams have had a big man develop since the first time they met. Duke freshman Mark Williams has emerged as an interior threat on offense and a rim protector on defense. The team’s leading scorer, Matthew Hurt, struggled with foul trouble in the first game when he was forced to defend UNC bigs Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot. Williams has taken the responsibility of defending the post off of Hurt’s shoulders.

Carolina has seen Walker Kessler emerge as more experienced bigs Brooks and Bacot have struggled.

It’s easy to list the likely suspects for a big game in the rivalry showdown, but, late in a game, the dagger usually comes from the direction it’s least expected. If Carolina-Duke II is, indeed, a dagger game, then expect an RJ Davis or Jeremy Roach to step forward as the unlikely hero.

And look for the game’s loser to turn to the ACC Tournament as its sole remaining hope of extending the season.