CHAPEL HILL — Sometimes, a UNC-Duke game is a journey, with enough changes in fortune and dramatic twists to fill a TV miniseries. UNC’s 93-84 win over Duke at the Smith Center wasn’t like that.
The win by the No. 3 Tar Heels over their archrival was more like a political ad. They made their point early and repeated it incessantly.
One 12-second stretch of action showed the game in a microcosm. After falling behind by six points early, Duke had cut the UNC lead to 10-8 less than four minutes into the game. Elliot Cadeau tried to pass ahead to RJ Davis, but he was covered by Jared McCain, who batted the pass away at midcourt. The ball bounced on the light blue map of North Carolina covering the center jump circle, once … twice …
At that point, the closest man to the loose ball, Duke Mark Mitchell, made a lunge for it, going to the floor, but it was too late. Davis had already changed direction and reached the ball as it bounced a third time. He batted it back to Harrison Ingram.
Two passes later, Cormac Ryan hit a wide-open corner 3, and a potential game-tying fast break for Duke was instead a five-point Carolina lead.
In that dozen ticks of the clock, we saw just about every major story line of the game.
Davis, the front-runner for ACC player of the year, had a Duke defender draped on him, making sure the Tar Heels’ star and ACC’s top scorer didn’t beat the Blue Devils. Davis didn’t hit a 3-pointer in a four-point first half, and only eight points in the final three minutes, as Duke tried to foul to cut into the lead, allowed him to finish with a Davis-like 17 points.
Of course, that didn’t matter when the Tar Heels had other heroes to step up. Ingram, who was in the right place at the right time to end up with the loose ball and trigger the fast break that led to Ryan’s 3, had a career night in his first Carolina-Duke game. He had 21 points, 13 rebounds, a career-high five 3-pointers, 4 steals and seemed to always produce the big play to quell any hopes of a Blue Devils comeback.
“I blacked out,” Ingram said of his first experience in the rivalry. “I’m still blacked out right now. I don’t even know what’s going on. I was on the court having a good time, seeing how loud the crowd was. They probably broke the sound barrier or something.”
Ingram took UNC’s upset loss at Georgia Tech earlier in the week personally and vowed not to let it happen again.
“I watched that game five times,” he said. “Twice the night of the loss, one time the morning after it. One time the next day, and I watched it again last night because I was still mad. … I feel like at the beginning of the game, I’m the guy that brings the energy, and I didn’t bring it that game. I wasn’t going to come out here and let it happen again.”
Then there was Mitchell and the other Duke players, who seemed a step slow and a beat too late all night. Carolina had nine steals and had a 19-7 edge in points off turnovers as every 50/50 ball seemed to end up in Tar Heel hands.
“The main story for me was the loose balls,” said Duke coach Jon Scheyer. “As you look throughout the game, they were hungrier to get them. And it turned into — I’ll have to go back and watch the film to see — but I bet close to 15, maybe even 20, points (off loose balls). Just wasn’t happy with the way we competed. That’s disappointing for me. You can play really well and compete your butt off and still lose to them because they’re a really good team. But we didn’t compete to the level that you need to to have a chance to beat this team tonight.”
The only Blue Devil who found the energy level needed for the sport’s best rivalry was another player making his Duke-UNC debut. Like Ingram, McCain’s only experience with the rivalry had been seeing it on TV while growing up, but he was all over the court trying to will his Blue Devils teammates over the hump. He finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds and a painful loss. He also had the near steal in the 12-second stretch that summed up the night.
“Jared is an absolute warrior, man,” Scheyer said.
“It hurts, man,” said McCain. “It hurts. This is the game, when you commit to Duke, it’s the big game you look forward to. It’s crazy to think that we don’t come out with energy and go play as hard as we can. So, it sucks.”
It took 40 minutes to write the latest chapter of the rivalry, but the 12-second CliffsNotes said it all.