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UNC vs. Duke: Ugly Wins Are Good

In order to beat ugly, sometimes you have to win ugly.

Duke v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

If there’s anything better than a win over Duke, it’s the morning after a win over Duke (especially when it’s a Friday morning!). It’s a bit easier to get out of bed. The sky is still Carolina blue, and rightfully so. The headlines and pictures on the morning paper are satisfying. The Dukies we live with, work with, and/or go to school with have receded into their shells. The bragging rights are ours yet again, at least until a month from now when we do it all again.

It gets even sweeter: a little over a week ago, after losing at Clemson for our third straight defeat, we had to entertain the possibility of a postseason spent in the NIT. I used an Arrested Development GIF to sum up the UNC feeling in the ACC Power Rankings. A key rotation player got suspended from the university and is almost certainly not coming back. I, personally, was even a teensy bit nervous that UNC would drop the Pitt game and we would enter a void from which there would be no escape.


One blowout win over Pitt and one grit-and-grind victory over Duke later and UNC’s season is back in business. Our strength of schedule is still top ten in the entire NCAA, our team is half a game behind current #3 seed Duke in the ACC standings, and oh yeah, this was Duke’s second consecutive loss. But it’s not smooth sailing from here on out. Tomorrow at 2:00, UNC has to make sure that this game is firmly in the rearview as they’ll be traveling to face an NC State team that has already bested the Heels once this season.

Unlike the players, we have the luxury of basking in the moment for as long as we want, though. And bask we will, because we have plenty of reasons to. First and foremost among them is that this was not a pretty win by any stretch of the imagination. This was a slugfest that had everything except bloody noses.

It was a war of attrition in which Trevon Duval fouled out for Duke, while Grayson Allen and Gary Trent Jr. both finished the game with four apiece. Allen’s four fouls had him playing I’m Not Touching You with Joel Berry II late in the game with Duke desperately needing to stop the clock. That possession ended in a thunderous Theo Pinson dunk that put the game away for good.

The most telling statistic is that UNC shot just 39% to Duke’s 48.4%. Since 2010, that’s the second-most UNC has been outshot by (9.4%) in a win. (Thanks, College Basketball Reference!) 39% is UNC’s lowest percentage from the floor in a win all season. From the 8:42 mark in the second half to the 3:12 mark, UNC didn’t even score at all. UNC’s bench combined for four points, all four of which were Sterling Manley free throws in the first half.

It’s the kind of game where, if you’re on the losing side, you constantly ask yourself how in the world you lost. You agonize about it for days, weeks, sometimes even months. A 12-point lead in the first half, evaporated. A loss, now a losing streak. And a future lottery player held to his fourth-lowest scoring output of the season.

It’s also the kind of game where, if you’re on the winning side, you have some cause for concern. Well, fellow Heels, don’t you worry. An ugly win is a good win, especially this late in the season. When tournament time starts and it’s win or go home, sometimes you have to win ugly. It’s just not realistic to execute for six consecutive games, all on the road, all against increasingly difficult competition. Wait, what? Oh, apparently it is very realistic! But of course, it can’t happen all the time.

Getting experience winning ugly will be a boon for these already very experienced Heels. Sometimes, shots just don’t fall. But that doesn’t always spell disaster. UNC executed in three ways that had nothing to do with shots falling but everything to do with winning the game:

  1. Crashing those offensive boards! UNC tied its season high of 20 offensive rebounds in a game, set earlier this season against Boston College. They managed to do this against a Duke team that was taller and more athletic. Even more awe-inspiring is that they did it with Manley and fellow freshman big Garrison Brooks logging only a combined 16 minutes! Cameron Johnson pulled down six of those offensive boards to lead the team (he also pulled down six in the BC game) and he seems to be a shoo-in for Most Impactful New Face this season.
  2. Hanging on to that orange! When the ball doesn’t always go through the rim, you can’t afford to have too many possessions end without a shot attempt. UNC ensured that they got the chance to shoot the ball much, much more often than not. The team’s two turnovers (both from Theo Pinson) not only were a season-low, they tied the lowest turnover total in the history of the school. (UNC recorded 2 turnovers in a 1997 NCAA Tournament win over Fairfield.) Add 15 assists to that formula and you have a recipe for success no matter how unkind the rim is being.
  3. Watching the other team shoot itself into oblivion! Sometimes winning ugly involves beating ugly. If I’m Coach K, I’ve got to be deeply concerned about what in the world happened to my team in the last ten minutes of the game, because I sure as hell hope I wouldn’t be the one responsible for it. At the 11:35 mark, Duke got a layup to cut the margin to 8. From that point on, Duke attempted two—TWO!—shots from inside the three-point line: a Bagley jumper that missed with two minutes left, and a Bagley putback that cut it to 4 with half a minute to play. During that same stretch, Duke took 11 threes and made 4, and that’s counting a garbage time bucket. For a team that scored 30 points in the paint in the first half alone, that’s utterly baffling.

Barring a cataclysmic meltdown, it’s safe to say UNC will be dancing in March. They’ll have to win more games like this if they want to be dancing in April.