Twelve months ago, security guards stood at the edge of the court in the Dean Smith Center.
As last year’s iteration of the Tar Heels — who had already sunk below the .500 mark — somehow held a 10-point lead with two minutes and change remaining against arch rival Duke, they were preparing for a raucous crowd of North Carolina fans to rush the court.
Of course, they never would.
Instead of claiming a lone moment of glory amid an inglorious season, a miraculous overtime buzzer-beater by Duke’s Wendell Moore Jr. sent the Tar Heels home from the Smith Center as they had left so many times that year; disappointed, and with yet another loss added to the column.
“We’re all just kind of in our own heads right now,” then-junior guard Andrew Platek said after last year’s loss. “Nobody really said anything. It is what it is.”
Twelve months later, and UNC had the chance to earn redemption in another Saturday night edition of the North Carolina-Duke rivalry.
In Cameron Indoor Stadium, there were no Blue Devil faithful to rush the court, dance in Speedos or lose their voices. Neither team was ranked in the heralded game, either — the first time that could be said in over 60 years. A rivalry that has been defined by starpower and excellence was played by two teams holding onto their lives at the edge of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
But for North Carolina, none of that mattered. With a chance to exorcise last year’s demons and reclaim bragging rights over Duke for the first time in two years, UNC didn’t let this opportunity slip away.
The Tar Heels pulled away, and let the Blue Devils back in the game.
Then, they did it another time.
And a fourth time.
But in the end, there would be no Saturday night heartbreak for UNC. Not this time.
First-year Caleb Love pulled down a rebound as the clock expired, and the quiet celebration began. It was North Carolina 91, Duke 87.
“I can’t even explain it, it feels good though,” said junior forward Leaky Black, who finished with 12 points on 4-4 shooting. “Fans or no fans, we beat Duke. It definitely feels good.”
66.7 percent shooting from deep. Leading for over 35 minutes of game time. A career-high 25 points for Love and six players in double figures. The Tar Heels' takeaway from this edition of the rivalry is simple: this team can win when the lights are the brightest and the game is in the balance.
“We were on the edge of our seats the whole time,” sophomore forward Armando Bacot said. “We had to win this game. We knew how much it meant for bragging rights for the fans, with us knowing all of them. We just wanted to win this game badly.”
With 15 seconds to go, UNC led by one — a similar difference to the one it maintained with 15 seconds remaining in last year’s opening tilt.
Duke was forced to foul, and Black went to the line and cashed in on one of two attempts. With a chance to tie the game up, Moore Jr. — the forward who permanently etched his name in UNC-Duke lore just a year ago — was swarmed at the baseline and forced into a turnover.
Two buried UNC free throws and one last-second Duke heave later, and Love victoriously held the ball under the basket. There would be no late collapse this time.
“It was a big (statement), just having this be one of the best rivalries in college basketball,” Love said. “It felt like there were fans, just how hard we were playing and how into the game we were. We were just locked in coming into the game.”
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