DURHAM, N.C. — Just when the storybook ending seemed inevitable, the Tar Heels decided to craft their own epic.
In UNC’s shocking 94-81 win over No. 4 Duke on Saturday, perhaps the final margin suggests complete dominance from a side looking to avenge an embarrassing defeat just 28 days earlier.
Instead, the game was arguably won in a span of four minutes, when UNC went on a 14-4 run the team would never relinquish.
“We knew they were going to come in fired up, but all week our main thing was thinking we were either going to win the fight or win the game,” junior forward Armando Bacot said.
As former Duke players, celebrities and thousands that parted ways with a fraction of their life savings to watch Mike Krzyzewski — you know, the guy with the most wins in the history of the sport — coach his last home basketball game, each timely Blue Devil bucket provoked a collective sigh of relief inside the hallowed annals of Cameron Indoor Stadium.
When AJ Griffin, one of the several future NBA players at Krzyzewski’s disposal and star of the previous matchup, nailed a three to give Duke a five-point lead over North Carolina with 10:32 remaining, the Blue Devils were prepared to deliver the knockout punch and get the party started.
But to those wearing the lighter shade of blue, the war — not the celebration — had only just begun.
“We had to plant our feet, we had to stand our ground and we had to fight,” head coach Hubert Davis said. “If we did those three things, it would put us in a position to do something not a lot of people expected us to do.”
As warm air, and of course, hostility, beamed down on the court named after his legendary adversary, North Carolina’s first-year coach assembled his artillery of choice. In the second half, the five Tar Heel starters played all 20 minutes, fatigue be damned.
With the team down five, UNC turned to one of the rivalry’s earlier protagonists. Sophomore guard Caleb Love, the one-time Blue Devil wannabe who exploded for 43 points in the two matchups last season, found himself open at the top of the key for a triple. It didn’t matter that he was only shooting 3-13 to that point – his budding confidence took over as he let it fly.
“When I made the last three in the first half, I knew that was the one I needed to get my confidence going,” Love said. “My shot wasn’t falling early but that got my rhythm going and I kept getting to the free throw line.”
On the ensuing possession, fellow sophomore guard R.J. Davis received the ball in transition and weaved his way into the paint for a layup to tie the game.
And finally, on the next two trips, UNC reverted back to the basics and allowed Bacot and graduate forward Brady Manek to finish inside. It was 65-61, UNC, as the home groans were drowned out by the giddy cheers and thunderous claps from the visiting sideline.
“It was one of those games where they felt the pressure and we just kept pushing,” Manek said.
Just as the saga seemed solidified in the Tar Heels’ favor, the Blue Devils flexed the talent that clinched them the ACC regular season title earlier in the week. When Paolo Banchero – a projected top-3 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft – rattled home a jumper to cut the lead to just one with a little over six minutes remaining, it was Davis’ turn to deliver another blow from behind the arc.
As UNC’s primary weapon when the team’s offensive flow was stagnant early on, he calmly elevated and let it fly from the right wing.
"It was all about mental toughness," Davis said. "We relied on each other to make big plays and that's what we were able to do. It was just a full-energized game that I loved being a part of."
As all stories go, a hero cannot be triumphant without slaying the most imposing challenger. For the Tar Heels, that enemy was former rivalry foe Wendell Moore Jr., who made a late three to once again give his team life.
But after years of hanging his head in defeat after previous losses to the Blue Devils, Bacot officially destroyed his literal Blue Demons by throwing down a two-handed slam to put the nail in the coffin.
"I wasn't trying to lose," Bacot said. "I wasn't excited until the buzzer ran off because you can never count them off, and I didn't want to go through that again."
Since dropping back-to-back road games by more than 20 points in January, the Tar Heels have won five in a row away from the Dean E. Smith Center. The win all but solidified a spot in the NCAA Tournament field, but on such a momentous night, the future seemed to be secondary.
The battle was won, and a new story was written.
“I think this is probably one of the greatest Carolina wins that wasn’t a national championship game," Bacot said. "So I’m glad to say I was a part of it.”
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