The Battle of the Blues’ latest installment almost mirrored the clash at Cameron Indoor in 2006.
Five years ago, a young, promising UNC team with Tyler Hansbrough faced off against their more experienced, senior-led team that included J.J. Redick and Sheldon Williams.
North Carolina emerged and shocked Duke that night, ruining the Blue Devils’ Senior Night for all of Krzyzewskiville.
The Tar Heels appeared on-course for a repeat, as they effectively outscored, out-rebounded, and outperformed the Blue Devils in the first half. Duke never looked comfortable and instead seemed bewildered that their archrival team of youngsters could humiliate them at home.
The roles were reversed in the second half.
Not only did Duke adjust their game and intensify their defense, they created numerous second chance scoring opportunities. Senior Nolan Smith took over the game, assisted by Seth Curry. The two players accounted for the bulk of the Blue Devils’ points.
North Carolina came up a bit short, but their overall performance once again displayed a more polished, newfound grit.
The Tar Heels never looked rattled playing in the lion’s den, notable considering their youth and the fact that a teammate had quit on them prior to the most meaningful game of the year.
UNC’s defensive effort in the second half provided the only real instance where they could have used Larry Drew’s defensive capability. Still, in the long run, the Heels stand a better chance without him and Kendall Marshall at the point.
The Heels would do good to take this competitive clash as yet another lesson in what is turning out to be a season of growing pains.
Focus on free throws, which is an absolute imperative in close games against powerhouse opponents. Finish the play after creating scoring opportunities. Improve three-point shooting a notch to maybe three per half.
Aside from the a few improvements, North Carolina showed that it could hang with the best of them. They proved it against Texas earlier in the season with Drew, and they did it against Duke without Drew.
From an outsider’s perspective, one could consider UNC’s play against Duke a vast improvement and moral victory, especially after last season’s disastrous 32-point romp at the same venue.
However, neither coach nor the players considered the final result anything else but a loss, which goes to show that they traveled eight miles down the road to accomplish one thing: win.
“I don't want to hear anything about moral victories,” said Roy Williams. “We had them. We let them get away.”
Harrison Barnes, John Henson, and Kendall Marshall all shared their coach’s sentiments in the post-game interviews.
Based on UNC’s response to their most recent setback, their close loss to Duke will not affect their confidence. On the contrary, their short and simple reactions merely reveal belief. Everyone on that team believes that they can compete and win against whomever they play.
This type of talk and mettle is significant, despite its cliché nature, because the team has rarely communicated that conviction publicly.
Belief in themselves and each other will continue to fuel the team to work harder and finish the remainder of their conference schedule strongly in preparation for their rematch against the Blue Devils.
It should surprise no one when the Tar Heels enact their revenge on March 5.