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UNC at Duke: Three Things Learned

I have no idea what we just watched, but I like it

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

For the fourth time in program history, UNC walked into Cameron Tyler Hansbrough Indoor Stadium, and took down the #1 ranked team in the country. It was UNC’s eighth overall win against a top-ranked Duke squad. Let that marinate for a minute, and realize how lucky we are as fans. Other fanbases can only dream or yell into the internet winds, begging for such notoriety. Louisville and Kentucky. Kansas against the entire Big XII. NC State against anyone. You get the point.

In all the commotion, we witnessed Luke Maye’s defense end Zion’s night and UNC push their record to 2-0 in front of President Obama. The fellas also improved their ACC road record to a clean 7-0.

Oh, and Duke never led as North Carolina went wire-to-wire for the victory.

I don’t know which of those accomplishments are more impressive. Along with a massive victory for the Heels, what else did we learn?

Program vs Team

Duke reloads year after year, relying on NBA-level talent who rarely spend more than one year on campus. North Carolina, whether by choice or by an evolving recruiting landscape, has relied mostly on three and four-year players, developing them over a career. I’m not going to pass judgement on which one is better. They are two methods that before last night had led to an even 4-4 record against the other since 2016. However, the differences in the two program were never more clear than last night.

Duke saw their leader, Zion Williamson, go down in the first minute with a knee injury. Leaderless, Duke never mounted a serious challenge to the Heels. It would be easy to give the victory an asterisk, but Duke has at least two other NBA lottery picks in their starting lineup. Maybe three. They don’t lack talent, skill, or even desire (as evidenced as their 23-point comeback win at Louisville). Their head coach has five NCAA titles and multiple Olympic gold medals, so they don’t lack coaching.

They lack experience and development. When they needed a substitute for Williamson, Jack White and former four-star recruit Javin DeLaurier “answered” the call. Former five-star recruit Marques Bolden, though a starter, was manhandled by Garrison Brooks and Luke Maye. Duke literally didn’t have an adequate answer. They had nowhere to turn. That’s a choice that program makes every spring and summer. That choice is reinforced by refusing to develop a meaningful bench early in the season.

Meanwhile, there was a clear difference in how UNC carried themselves throughout the night. Not rattled by the environment, the senior-laden Heels had an answer for everything the Blue Devils threw at them. Kenny, Luke, and Cam combined for 58 points, 27 rebounds, and 10 assists. On the road. In Cameron. Every major Duke play was matched by an equally big lay-up, steal, or drawn offensive foul (6 in total). Heads didn’t drop after a mistake. Words were shouted in encouragement. Effort increased. Potential disasters were turned into advantages.

Nothing illustrated that better than the hectic final seconds of the first half, when Cam missed an easy lay-up after a great defensive stand. After a Duke rebound off the miss, Seventh Woods grabbed a steal in transition and found Garrison Brooks for a dunk at the buzzer. Last month, that turns into a last-second Duke three-pointer to cut the lead to 5. Instead, the Heels took a 42-32 lead into the half.

There are certainly benefits to Duke’s one-and-done model. It may even lead them to a title this spring. Losing Zion IS a big deal. However, next time you get despondent about UNC missing out on key targets on the recruiting trail, remember nights like tonight.

Speaking of Woods….

While Coby White continued his back-and-forth metamorphosis between a doe-eyed freshman and All-ACC point guard, junior Seventh Woods relieved him for 13 crucial minutes. It was hectic. It was ugly. It was beautiful. It was an emotional roller coaster. It was the total Seventh Woods experience.

Woods only finished with a pedestrian 5 points, 3 assists, 3 turnovers, and 2 steals, but box scores don’t always tell the whole story. North Carolina extended or maintained their lead every single time he was on the court. In the first half, UNC was +9 with Woods on the court. The first half score? 42-32.

There was also a huge four-minute stretch in the second half.

A 22-point lead had been slimmed to 15, with Duke trying to find some momentum. The Duke faithful were looking for any reason to explode as the scoreboard read 63-48. Seventh Woods came in for an erratic White at 11:14. When he left the game with 7:22 remaining, the Heels’ held a 74-57 lead. Three weeks ago, that lead gets cut to single digits and Duke is mounting another memorable comeback.

Last night, the Heels left with a 16-point win. That does not happen without Woods’ performance.

Interior Domination

Zion. No Zion. It doesn’t matter. North Carolina’s strength has not been interior offense. Even against the most pedestrian of teams, they have struggled to generate consistent post offense. That narrative was flipped on its head last night where they scored a whopping 62 points in the paint, thanks in part to 14 fast-break points. It was also thanks to utter domination by a duo of former 3-star recruits.

Brooks finished with 14 and 8. Maye had a silly 30 and 15. That’s exactly half of UNC’s points and rebounds. Add the seven rebounds from Cam Johnson (also a 3-star, sub-200 ranked recruit), and those three outrebounded the entire Duke team not named “RJ Barrett” by a margin of 30-28. For the game, the Heels won the rebounding battle 46-41.

Offensively, UNC exploited mismatches in the post and had Duke’s big men chasing air. Brooks found empty space all night along the baseline, and capitalized when he received the ball near the rim. Cam and Kenny each had 4 assists and o turnovers.

Meanwhile, for arguably the first time all season, Maye consistently put the defender on his hip while methodically working angles for a shot or pass. It was not pure coincidence that his improved positioning and patience led to 14-24 shooting and just 2 turnovers. Both were improvements on his season averages.

UNC’s interior defense was equally as dominant. In a combined 60 minutes, Bolden, White, and DeLaurier could only muster 8 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 turnovers. Total. I still don’t know how people can honestly say Roy doesn’t develop talent. Last night was a prime example of how ignorant that argument is.

Along the way, UNC scored 88 points. Just 6 of those points were from behind the arc. Let that sink in. Then just shrug, accept it, and enjoy it.

Besides, the rematch is just 16 days away.