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Column: Kyle Filipowski is the new villain that this rivalry needed

Duke first-year center Kyle Filipowski (30) is lifted off of the floor by his coaches during the UNC game agaisnt Duke. Filipowski took at fall during the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 4, 2023. UNC lost 63-57.

Something was missing.

After a disappointing 2022-23 season that saw UNC get swept by Duke and miss the NCAA tournament, Saturday was set for a top-10 clash between the Tar Heels and Blue Devils — the first since 2019.

Yet, after the spoils that then-head coach Mike Krzyzewski's final season delivered to North Carolina fans, I couldn’t help but feel the absence of one key rivalry element heading into Saturday: hatred.

This Duke team, even the bluest of hearts can admit, is generally likable. Gone are the Christian Laettners, JJ Redicks and Grayson Allens. First-year Jared McCain makes his silly TikToks with a bright smile on his face. Senior Jeremy Roach is even "cool" with UNC’s RJ Davis and Armando Bacot.

But with less than five minutes remaining in the game, I found my answer when Bacot went to work in the post and earned an and-one over Kyle Filipowski. Bacot turned around and hit the "too small" celebration. His teammates on the court followed suit. And then the bench.

UNC first-year guard Elliot Cadeau (2), graduate guard Cormac Ryan (3), graduate forward Armando Bacot (5) and junior forward Harrison Ingram (55) hold their palms down 'in a "too small" signal, directed toward Duke sophomore center Kyle Filipowski (30), during the men’s basketball game against Duke at the Dean E. Smith Center on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. UNC beat Duke 93-84.

Did it matter that Filipowski was voted the preseason ACC Player of the Year? Based on how that play, and how the overall night, went — no. Just ask Bacot himself.

"At the end of the day, the ACC runs through me," he said.

If Saturday night was any indication, Filipowski has emerged as a brand-new dark blue target for the Tar Heels and fans alike.

And if you’re wondering why Bacot was wearing a mouth guard reminiscent of middle-school braces for most of the game, that’s thanks to good ol' Filipowski, who chipped five of Bacot's teeth. 

“He ran through my face,” Bacot said.

And the result? Bacot gave it straight back to him for a season-high 25 points.

"I really just wanted to take it to his chest," the graduate center said.

In postgame interviews, RJ Davis held an ice pack to his swollen right eye — a result of getting tangled up with Filipowski and UNC teammate Seth Trimble. When asked if it was a cheap shot, Davis asked: “Which one?” 

UNC graduate guard Cormac Ryan (3) comforts senior guard RJ Davis (4) after an eye injury during the men’s basketball game against Duke at the Dean E. Smith Center on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. UNC beat Duke 93-84.

The response garnered a few laughs, and Davis admitted that Filipowski later apologized to him. It probably wasn’t intentional, as Davis said. 

But to the fans, that didn’t matter. Whether it was the upgraded flagrant on Davis that referee Roger Ayers correctly predicted would get him booed "real bad," or the time Harrison Ingram and Filipowski got into it after a loose ball, there were plenty of jeer-able moments.

Bacot said he thinks this past Saturday was the loudest he’s heard the Dean E. Smith Center get in his five years as a Tar Heel. And where would he place the crescendo, the peak of all the noise?

When Filipowski was at the free throw line.

“I mean, that was pretty crazy,” Bacot said. “I was just talking to Jeremy [Roach], and he was like ‘God dang.’ Shoutout to the fans for that.”

And shoutout to Filipowski for giving Tar Heel nation a new Dookie to hate.

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Shelby Swanson

Shelby Swanson is the 2023-24 sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant sports editor and senior writer. Shelby is a junior pursuing a double major in media and journalism and Hispanic literatures and cultures.