BATTLE OF BLUES II: Tar Heels exude confidence on rematch eve
No. 14 North Carolina has won 12 straight conference games for the first time in 27 seasons. No. 4 Duke hasn’t lost at Cameron Indoor Stadium since UNC won there two years ago.
On the other hand, the Tar Heels have only won their past three games by a combined seven points, while the Blue Devils just allowed 17 straight points late in an upset loss at Wake Forest.
There are plenty of reasons for optimism — and concern — on both sides as UNC plays at Duke today (9 p.m., ESPN) in the regular-season finale for both teams.
Tar Heel point guard Marcus Paige said both teams should be confident going into tonight’s game. But he acknowledged that UNC would have to play better than it did last week, when it beat Virginia Tech by 4 and Notre Dame at home by 2.
“We understand that if we play the way we played the last couple games, it’s not going to get it done,” Paige said. “We have to have a maximum-effort, maximum-execution type of game.”
UNC (23-7, 13-4 ACC) has another reason to feel good heading into Durham — the Tar Heels beat Duke (23-7, 12-5) on Feb. 20 at the Smith Center, 74-66.
“I think that that confidence is there,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We know that we can win the game because we already have.”
The Tar Heels overcame an 11-point deficit with 15 minutes left in the first meeting. In part by using a 1-3-1 zone defense for the first time this season, UNC limited Duke to two points in a span of 8:41 midway through the second half as the Blue Devils missed 13 straight shots and committed four turnovers.
The Tar Heels were successful at the Smith Center by outrebounding the smaller Blue Devils by 13 and by holding Duke — the conference leaders in 3-pointers (275) and 3-point shooting percentage (39.5) — to just 5 of 22 shooting from behind the arc.
“That was all we worked on all week was try to limit their looks,” Paige said. “Make them shoot a 3 with a hand in their face. … I’m going to give credit to our defense for what we did, and also thank them for missing a couple shots when we needed them to.”
One key for UNC will be stopping Duke freshman Jabari Parker, who had 17 points and 11 rebounds at the Smith Center but also committed five turnovers.
When asked the best way to defend the versatile Parker, who is second in the ACC in scoring and tops in rebounding, Williams joked: “Hope he sprains his ankle going up the steps. And I don’t mean that in any derogatory way. … He’s really hard to stop. He really has no holes in his game.”
The first Duke win is centerpiece of a stunning turnaround for the Tar Heels, who were in last place in the ACC after five games but can now be the No. 2 seed in next week’s ACC Tournament.
“People now are still congratulating you on the win over Duke, even though you’ve played (four) games afterwards,” said senior Leslie McDonald, who had a season-high 21 points against the Blue Devils. “It’s just something about playing against Duke.”
Now the spotlight turns to Durham as the Tar Heels attempt to sweep their rival for the first time since the 2009 NCAA title season.
“(Cameron) is crazy. It’s like a high school gym as far as fans right on top of you. But I enjoy it,” junior James Michael McAdoo said. “Playing in front of not only the people there, but it’s Carolina vs. Duke, the game’s going to be on ESPN, everyone’s going to be watching back home and all over the world.
SEEDING UPDATE — UNC has a bye into Friday’s ACC Tournament quarterfinals, but it can still be seeded anywhere from second to fourth. The Tar Heels will get the No. 2 seed with a win today and a Syracuse loss at Florida State on Sunday. If both UNC and Syracuse win, the Tar Heels will be No. 3. If UNC loses today, it’s guaranteed the No. 4 seed.