DURHAM — North Carolina crashed the Coach K farewell party by sending Duke’s Hall of Fame coach off the floor named after him one last time with a 94-81 loss.
The Tar Heels ignored the script, which was centered around the retiring Duke head coach. Carolina was supposed to be a supporting character, putting up a fight before losing and letting the celebration begin in Durham. Instead, the Heels went full Barney Fife, stealing scenes and chewing scenery on their way to avenging a 20-point loss to the Blue Devils last month.
“This is probably one of the greatest Carolina wins that wasn’t a national championship,” said Armando Bacot, who scored 23 points with seven rebounds and was aggressive around the basket all game, after being hamstrung by foul trouble in the first matchup. “Just being able to shut (the Cameron Crazies) up and celebrate on their court with all their former players watching, it was great.”
Hubert Davis, who played for Dean Smith and learned under Roy Williams, went outside the Carolina family for inspiration in the big game. He quoted his former coach with the Knicks, Pat Riley, and showed the team clips of an upcoming HBO special on the Showtime Lakers prior to the game.
“We had to plant our feet and stand our ground,” he said, channeling Riley. “We had to fight. If we did those things, I knew it would put us in a position to do something that a lot of teams don’t have the chance to do.”
The result was a physical battle with the rival Blue Devils. The referees let the two teams bang away. The Tar Heels, who have played with a short rotation all season, all but set the bench on fire in Durham. All five UNC starters played the entire second half. Davis did not substitute once. His tired team did their part, standing their ground and not giving in to fatigue or the Blue Devils.
Four Tar Heels scored 20 points, in what appears to be a first for the Carolina program. Brady Manek (20), Caleb Love (22) and RJ Davis (21) joined Bacot. Love shook off an 0-for-8 first half to hit 4 of 9 the rest of the way, along with 12 free throws. Manek went 5 of 10 from 3-point range and added 11 rebounds. Davis scored on a variety of drives, taking the ball right at Duke’s big men.
“I think it was important for us to be good against a good team,” Davis said. “I could see throughout the game our confidence growing with each possession.”
The Heels withstood a 14-0 Duke run in the first half — matching the largest the Tar Heels had given up this season — and broke open a close game late, following a 9-0 run midway through the second half with an 8-0 run that built the lead to as many as 14 points.
The win should remove all doubt about UNC’s tournament chances. The Tar Heels have spent most of the last month teetering on the bubble as the first-year coach took criticism on social media.
Davis feigned ignorance, saying after the win that he wasn’t on Twitter and didn’t know what a quadrant (the main seeding tool used by the NCAA selection committee) was.
“I know we’re 23-8,” he said. “I know we’ve won 11 of the last 13. I know we’re a No. 3 seed in the ACC Tournament. And I know nobody thought we had a chance at winning tonight.”
Nobody, that is, except the group in light blue that decided to stand their ground.