While the Tar Heels’ season didn’t end exactly how we envisioned it, it’s still fun to look back and reflect on some of the great moments. When choosing our favorite win for the entire season here at THB, the options were pretty simple: either the ACC Tournament Duke game or the Duke game at home. Both received votes, but the latter ultimately came out on top.
As many will remember, this was the 2017-2018 season’s first installment of the UNC-Duke rivalry. Carolina was coming off an ugly three-game losing streak that had only been ended by a victory over Pitt, who would eventually finish winless in the conference. Panic was starting to set in, and this game felt like an absolute must-win for the Tar Heels to get their season back on track.
The Heels came out of the gate looking like the same team that had just lost three straight. The first half was largely dominated by Duke’s talented freshmen big men. Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter were scoring at will in the paint and owning the boards. With 6 and a half minutes left, Duke was up 40-28, and there was very much a feeling of “here we go again.” The Heels were able to put together a mini-run and were only down 4 at halftime, but the ease with which Bagley and Carter had scored was not easy to palate as a UNC fan.
I don’t know what Roy Williams said to the team at halftime, but a switch was flipped. The Heels came out firing on all cylinders, and all of a sudden Bagley was struggling to get open and getting suffocated every time he did touch the ball. That “lackadaisical defense” that received so much criticism in the games prior was alive and better than ever.
That second half was the turning point of the season. It took just 20 minutes of stellar team defense for guys to realize how important it is and buy in on that end of the court. The Heels parlayed this performance into a six-game winning streak and, just like that, the team that many thought was dead in the water was in contention for a 1 seed.
Long-term benefits aside, this win was special for myriad reasons. For one, it was Carolina-Duke, so it’s always special. This rivalry somehow seems to just keep getting better. As has become the norm, much was made prior to each matchup about how dead even these teams have been over the last 40 years or so. Prior to this particular matchup, the previous 100 meetings between the two were split 50-50. We don’t necessarily want it to be even, but the facts are undeniable. The intensity and emotions are as high as they’ve ever been, and it figures to remain that way as long as these squads have their respective Hall of Fame coaches manning the sidelines.
Moreover, this game was an opportunity for Cam Johnson and the freshmen to get their first taste of the rivalry. While the rookies didn’t do a whole lot, Johnson added a crucial 18 points on 7-15 shooting (4-8 from deep). Scoring wasn’t even his most impressive contribution, though. Johnson posted 13 rebounds for the game and was instrumental in keeping Duke’s aforementioned duo off the glass in the second half.
Another big performance came from Kenny Williams, who added 20 points, tying his career high. His hot first-half shooting kept the Tar Heels in it, allowing them to make a run and take the lead during the final 20 minutes. Williams’ six deep balls tied current assistant coach Hubert Davis for the record for three pointers made against Duke.
Overall, this game was exciting, emotional, and above all, a really well-played basketball game. Here’s hoping this rivalry’s ferocity persists next season under the reigns of Luke Maye, Kenny Williams, and Duke’s next batch of freshmen.