CHAPEL HILL — The score was lower than usual, but Duke-North Carolina had all the urgency fans have come to expect from the sport’s best rivalry.
A desperate North Carolina team looking to keep its NCAA hopes alive and a Duke team looking to get a double-bye in the upcoming ACC Tournament, both battled in a back-and-forth game before the Blue Devils pulled away for a 62-57 win. It was the lowest winning score in the rivalry since 2002 and, coupled with Duke’s 63-57 win at Cameron Indoor Stadium last month, produced the lowest-scoring regular season series between the teams since 1979. One of those two games that year had a 7-0 halftime score as UNC coach Dean Smith’s stalling offense helped bring about the college basketball shot clock.
It was also the first time the winner of both Duke-Carolina regular season games did so with a point total in the 60s (or lower) since 1954, the first year of the ACC.
Despite the fact that points were hard to come by, the game was a battle throughout. Of the 39 made shots the two teams combined for in the game, 19 either tied the game, broke a tie or changed the lead. In the second half, a 12-minute stretch saw 9 of 11 shots change the game’s leader.
One of the two shots that didn’t may have been the key moment in the game. With 9:04 remaining, an RJ Davis 3-pointer gave UNC the lead. A half-minute later, Pete Nance hit a 3 to extend the lead to four. The Smith Center crowd exploded, and, after leading much of the second half and building the margin as high as seven points, Duke appeared to be out of answers. Big man Dereck Lively was on the bench with four fouls, and backup Ryan Young had three.
That’s when freshman Mark Mitchell stepped up with a play both coaches mentioned after the game.
“Mark Mitchell had two of the biggest plays all year,” said Duke coach Jon Scheyer. “He had the biggest basket of the game with a great drive.”
The driving layup cut the UNC lead in half and helped shift the momentum away from the home team. It also highlighted a lack of attention to the UNC scouting report, a lapse that Carolina coach Hubert Davis pointed out afterward.
“So we take the four-point lead and we give Mark Mitchell a drive to his left for a layup,” said Davis. “Then I think the next possession, we give a lob to (Dereck) Lively, who rolls every time off of a ball screen.”
The two defensive lapses helped Duke tie the score as UNC fumbled away its best chance to put away the Blue Devils.
“”Very frustrating. It really is,” said Davis. “At the end of the day, it comes down to making plays. I’ve talked to you guys all year, and to the team, about the importance of discipline and details. That’s a perfect example of discipline and details from a defensive standpoint. Those are things that have been told and taught and those types of things that you just can’t do down the stretch.”
Mitchell also pulled down a pair of rebounds in the final 70 seconds to end Carolina scoring chances with the game in the balance, the other “biggest plays” that Scheyer mentioned.
Mitchell finished with 10 points, one of four Blue Devils in double figures. Duke was led by Kyle Filipowski, who shook off a rough start to the game to finish with 22 points and 13 rebounds, both game highs.
The win earned Duke the No. 4 seed in next week’s ACC Tournament, meaning they won’t have to play until Thursday’s quarterfinals. The loss stuck a pin in UNC’s bubble hopes. The consensus opinion among bracket prognosticators was that Carolina had to win out its final four games, and the Tar Heels entered with wins in the first three must-have games.
Davis refused to accept the premise of any questions about UNC’s bubble standing, saying, “Well, I don’t know where they get that information,” and “I’m not a narrative guy. All I know was that on Wednesday 7 p.m. we play the winner of Boston College and Louisville.”