UNC faces tall task at Duke

The Heels are looking to spoil Coach K’s finale and wipe out an earlier blowout

UNC guard R.J. Davis and the Tar Heels will battle Duke guard Trevor Keels and the Blue Devils in the regular season finale for both teams on Saturday. The game will also be Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

On Monday evening, UNC was fresh off a season-saving Senior Night win over Syracuse. Mere minutes after the game, the question came up.

What about Duke on Saturday?

“We just have to come in and fight it,” said Armando Bacot. “It’s going to be a hostile environment, so …”

Bacot trailed off, and the team’s SID quickly warned media to focus on questions related to the just-completed game with Syracuse. But the message was evident: North Carolina will have its work cut out for it in Saturday’s rematch with the fourth-ranked Blue Devils.

Duke blitzed the Tar Heels a month ago in the Smith Center, scoring 13 of the game’s first 16 points and never looking back. The Blue Devils led 31-8, reached a 28-point lead in the final four minutes and cruised to a 20-point win, the second-largest road blowout of the Tar Heels in Coach K’s career.

“Those guys are really good. And then they have a very good basketball team,” UNC’s Hubert Davis said after the first game, “and so, we have to improve. We’ve got to get better, and for us to compete against them in the latter part of the year, we’re gonna have to play better.”

Duke has done its part since the game, winning six of seven heading into Tuesday’s game at Pitt. The Blue Devils will be looking to put the finishing touches on a regular season title. At 15-3 in the league, Duke had a one-game lead over Notre Dame following Monday’s action.

The Tar Heels have also played better since the first Duke game, although they’ve been plagued by inconsistency. UNC escaped at Clemson, then blew out Florida State, leading 18-0 at one point. That was followed by a nearly unfathomable home loss to Pittsburgh that rocked the Tar Heels’ bubble position. UNC righted the ship the next time out, earning its first Quad I win of the year at Virginia Tech. Senior Night was another near disaster — not quite of Pitt proportions but enough to scuttle any hope of an at-large bid — as Carolina escaped with an overtime home win over Syracuse.

When the dust cleared, the Heels were 6-1 since the last Duke game, riding a four-game winning streak and having a double bye wrapped up in the ACC Tournament.

A win at Duke would probably remove any doubt of an NCAA bid for the Tar Heels, while a loss shouldn’t hurt UNC’s resume much, if at all. The game, in that respect, is the polar opposite of the Pitt and Syracuse games, which were near fatal if the Heels lost but didn’t help them much with a win.

The Tar Heels will have their work cut out for them. In addition to finding a way to make up the 20-point gap between the two teams on their home floor, Carolina will be coping with perhaps the toughest Cameron Indoor Stadium atmosphere ever experienced by a visitor as it will be the final home game of coach Mike Krzyzewski’s career.

The closest emotional equivalent for UNC might have been in 2006 when the Tar Heels traveled to Duke on JJ Redick’s Senior Night. The No. 13 Tar Heels knocked off the top-ranked Blue Devils, and Carolina fans still speak fondly of ruining Redick’s final home game.

The emotion of Coach K’s finale promises to be cranked up far higher. That could be a double-edged sword for the Blue Devils, who will need to contain themselves and avoid the pressure that comes with such a momentous occasion.

“It was more than about us versus Carolina,” Wendell Moore Jr. said after the first game. “Honestly, it was about Coach, his last time coming to Carolina, so we wanted to send him out with a win because he definitely deserves it.”

That feeling will be amped up for Duke’s players in this game, and they’ll need to get off to a fast start to avoid the feelings of “what if” that could creep in if Carolina threatens an upset.

There’s also the matter of the blowout in the first game. There isn’t much history of a team in this rivalry bouncing back from a home loss that large because the first matchup is usually a nail-biter. If any blowouts occur, they’re often in the regular season finale or the ACC Tournament.

The most recent example was in 2019 when UNC won by 16 at Cameron in February in the Zion Williamson shoe game. The Tar Heels also won the rematch, but the score was much tighter.

You have to go back to 2010 to find a comparable game for Duke. The Blue Devils won in the Smith Center by 10 in the first game, then won by 32 at Cameron. In 2008, they won by 11 in Chapel Hill, then lost the rematch at home.

Going back to Coach K’s biggest win in Chapel Hill, Duke beat UNC by 29 in 2002, then nearly repeated the feat in winning by 25 in Durham.

It’s perhaps the toughest sports ticket to get, with secondary prices bypassing those for the Super Bowl. Emotions will be high and there is potential for drama on both sides. Once again, the college basketball regular season will come down to Duke and Carolina.