DURHAM, N.C. -- Oftentimes, it feels like UNC and Duke play in a vacuum.
Ranked or unranked, win streak or not, it is hard to consider external factors in college basketball's greatest and most competitive rivalry. But on Saturday, those factors were impossible to ignore as the North Carolina men's team ventured into Cameron Indoor Stadium hungry for a victory after dropping a home game against Pitt earlier in the week.
Unsurprisingly, Saturday's matchup was fiercely competitive. After the lead changed hands many times, Duke completely shut down the Tar Heels' offense in the final minutes of the game to come out victorious, 63-57.
Looking through the lens of the rivalry, it's a narrative that makes sense. Duke's rookie head coach Jon Scheyer left with his first win against North Carolina at home, while the Tar Heels, having played their archrival down to the wire, should have had little to hang their heads about.
"If you had told me last week we'd be up one point with like two or three minutes left, I would've took it," senior center Armando Bacot said. "I mean, it's a hard place to come in and win, especially when you're talking about Carolina versus Duke."
But for UNC, it's impossible to leave the outcome of the game in the vacuum of the rivalry.
After suffering back-to-back losses for the first time since early December, the Tar Heels' reliability concerns have returned as they stare down the home stretch of the season.
"I think the most frustrating part is, you know, we can't get a sense of consistency throughout multiple games," junior guard Caleb Love said.
Love and junior guard RJ Davis combined for 10-31 shooting against the Blue Devils, and many of those misses were on open looks. Graduate wing Leaky Black helped make up that offense with an efficient 13-point performance, but no Tar Heel could put the ball through the net in the final four minutes of regulation.
Deadlocked at 57 points as the game clock ticked down, UNC failed to take the lead despite getting the necessary stops on the defensive end. Graduate transfer Pete Nance and RJ Davis both missed shots that would have put UNC ahead late.
After Duke's first-year big man Dereck Lively II threw down a putback dunk to break the tie with one minute and 35 seconds remaining, Black missed an uncontested 3-point attempt from the corner. Soon after, Duke guard Jeremy Roach iced the game with a driving lay in and two free throws.
"Execution on the offensive end, that has been up and down in late-game situations, and once we get better and more consistent at that I think it'll be a happier locker room," UNC head coach Hubert Davis said.
Now sitting uncomfortably in the middle of the ACC standings with a mediocre record, it is easy to draw parallels to last season's team that sat on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament before flipping a switch late in February.
But Hubert Davis – who is insistent on leaving last year in the rearview mirror – does not like to think that way.
"The number one thing that I learned as a second-year head coach is that every year is different," he said.
The Tar Heels will have to do more than simply hope they can turn it around late in the season — it will take a whole lot of work and reflection to make the necessary changes.
According to Love, many of those changes won't be about tactics so much as they will be about mindset.
"I just feel like it's in us," Love said. "It's nothing X's and O's. I just feel like it's everything that's in between our chest."
With road matchups against in-state rivals Wake Forest and N.C. State quickly approaching, there's just not much time to prove that 'it' is there.
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