With five minutes to go, the exodus began.
Three minutes later, there were more Carolina Blue seats visible than Carolina Blue jerseys in the Dean E. Smith Center on Saturday.
Booming boos from remaining supporters continued in Duke’s direction, but the rival fans embraced it. Members of the Blue Devils’ bench threw up their arms and motioned for more. There was no denying what had taken place on the court over the previous two hours — from beginning to end, Duke dominated its biggest rivals on their own home court.
Less than 10 minutes into the contest, the Blue Devil lead ballooned to 21 points. Even after a glimmer of Tar Heel hope shined through to end the first half, the lead never shrunk below double-digits. Every moment of joy for the 21,750 member crowd at the Smith Center was followed by an even longer bout with misery.
When the final buzzer sounded, the scoreboard told the story of the game: Duke 87, UNC 67.
For three years, the North Carolina men’s basketball team has put together subpar seasons per the usual expectations of the program. Despite this, before Saturday, the Tar Heels had split their series with Duke, 2-2, in this stretch — keeping each game respectable, even in the worst of times.
But in this particular rendition of the rivalry, there were only a handful of moments that UNC looked to be near Duke’s level.
“We got punched in the mouth,” senior forward Leaky Black said. “Five minutes into the game, I guess we just started panicking.”
Just past the 15-minute mark of the first half, UNC’s deficit had reached 14 points, and while it continued to grow throughout the middle of the half, a small run to end the frame reignited some hope.
At halftime, the deficit sat at 11. But less than four minutes into the second half, Duke led by 23. Any bit of hope reverberating throughout the building quickly dissipated.
“At the end of the day, sometimes you don’t play as well as you want to play,” head coach Hubert Davis said. “We didn’t play our best game.”
Saturday was Davis’ first game at the helm in a UNC-Duke bout and Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski's last in Chapel Hill.
If the Tar Heels and Blue Devils don’t play again past their scheduled regular season contests, Duke's victory assured Krzyzewski a winning record against UNC — with the Hall of Famer currently holding a 50-46 record against his Tobacco Road rival.
Saturday was Krzyzewski’s second-largest margin of victory in Chapel Hill, but despite pregame predictions, the result wasn't completely unexpected. Four of the Tar Heels’ seven losses this season have come by 20 or more points and just two have been by less than 10.
“We just didn’t come out on top, didn’t execute well, didn’t get stops," graduate forward Brady Manek said. "But we all definitely played hard.”
With the bulk of the ACC struggling and North Carolina’s track record against lesser opponents, the Tar Heels have a strong possibility of making the NCAA Tournament this year. But, like last year, they will not be highly seeded and will face a difficult path in advancing in the Big Dance.
If Saturday and this season’s results are any indication, then the Tar Heels aren’t quite up to par with the upper echelon of college basketball.
But with a platoon of highly-rated talent, North Carolina should, on paper, have a chance to improve its reputation in the latter stages of the season.
Whether or not that happens is up to how they respond to Saturday’s shock.
“They’re left with two choices,” Davis said. “One of the choices is to stay down and whine and complain and point fingers and not get back up. The other choice is to get back up. The other choice is to get back up and start working and competing and fighting back.”
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