What a difference a delay makes.
North Carolina’s postponed first meeting with Duke might have set in motion a crazy change of fortunes for both squads. The Tar Heels had confidence for the game originally scheduled for Feb. 12, but the Blue Devils had more.
Around Chapel Hill, the game didn’t have the same buzz as in previous years because Carolina fans still looked at their team skeptically. Something happened when the game was moved to Feb. 20 after a snowstorm stopped Duke’s charter bus from delivering them down U.S. 15-501.
It turned an accommodating Dean E. Smith Center crowd into an angry one.
“The fact that it was postponed gave it a little bit different energy in the gym,” UNC guard Marcus Paige said. “People were more anxious. Our fans were chomping at the bit for Duke to come play us. It gave it a cool and unique and interesting dynamic to the game.”
More importantly for the Tar Heels, it gave them the validation they sorely needed. They’d won seven in row before handing then-No. 5 Duke a 74-66 loss, but that was the game that made the other wins matter.
“You still have people now congratulating you on the win over Duke even though you’ve played [four] games afterwards,” UNC senior guard Leslie McDonald said. “I don’t know; it’s just something about playing against Duke. I think that game really got everybody together and opened their eyes, saying, 'This is a good team.'”
The Tar Heels are now the self-assured team heading into Durham, with their winning streak reaching 12 in a row. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the 10 previous times Carolina has faced the Blue Devils after winning at least 12 in a row, the Heels have won nine of the meetings.
It presumably emboldened some North Carolina students to temporarily rename “Krzyzewskiville,” the area where Duke students camp out for game tickets. Someone painted a white sheet with “Williamsville” written in Carolina blue and hung it up in front of Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Yes, nothing speaks of confidence like trying to clown your rival. No one was trying to taunt Duke before the postponement. But even North Carolina coach Roy Williams acknowledged that victory added an exclamation point to their winning streak.
“We know that we can win the game because we already have,” Williams said. “Does that mean we’re going to win [Saturday, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN]? No, and I think our players understand that. Whether it’s validation, as you said, or just us gaining some confidence from the game, I think there is a difference.”
Duke finds itself in need of a confidence boost after losing at Wake Forest on Wednesday. The Blue Devils are no longer being touted as a potential No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament. If they lose again to the Heels, they could also lose playing the opening NCAA tournament weekend in Raleigh, N.C.
Duke senior forward Josh Hairston, playing in what will be in his final game in Cameron Indoor Stadium against the Heels, called the loss to the Demon Deacons “probably our worst defeat of the season.”
“We basically low-balled the game,” Hairston said. “We thought that because of who we were, our ranking and all that, they would lay over for us.”
A troubling pattern is emerging that could make for a short postseason showing if the Blue Devils don’t rectify it.
In its loss to Carolina, Duke couldn’t find a way to close out the game. The Tar Heels outscored the Blue Devils 18-6 in the final 4:55. Duke was 2-for-7 from the floor during that stretch, missed all four 3-point attempts and committed two turnovers.
Duke’s 82-72 loss to Wake Forest produced a similar stretch. The Blue Devils were outscored 23-6 over the final 5:44, in which they shot 2-for-10 from the floor, missed all six 3-point attempts and committed six turnovers.
“I think we let up in certain games, not all the time; we let up when we get a lead and that can’t be the case going forward,” said Duke forward Rodney Hood.
Another cause for concern is the Blue Devils’ 3-point shooting. They ranked second nationally, making 42 percent from behind the arc, through their first 25 games. Since going 5-of-22 against Carolina, they have shot just 27 percent from 3-point range in their last four games.
Hood said the shooting will improve if the Blue Devils revert to making the extra pass instead of trying to score as individuals. He said they’ve been working on it since the Virginia game in mid-January, but it was reiterated after going 6-of-27 against Wake.
“Sometimes one game can devastate you or it can make you better. I think Wake Forest made us better,” Hood said. “Before Wake Forest we were playing very good basketball in that stretch we had. We’re confident we’re not looking at it like the season is over. We’re confident for [Carolina].”
Duke will face a confident Carolina team and the Blue Devils are partly to blame for the Heels' rise.
“It has been a lot more positive vibes around here. People are lot more optimistic about what we can do later this month and in the [NCAA] tournament,” Paige said. “We’re obviously feeling the same way. Even though we’ve played ugly the last couple of games, we’re still able to win and win consistently and that kind of thing helps you later on in March.”