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The Dean’s List: Turning the Tables

Let’s take a moment to discuss just how important Saturday’s beating of Duke really was.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Miami-Florida Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to The Dean’s List! The weekly segment that brings readers hot takes, freezing cold takes, and everything in between from the world of Carolina athletics.

Let’s be honest: the win against Duke this past Saturday in Cameron Indoor Stadium felt really, really good.

Sure, there were no fans yelling out unseasoned insults at UNC players that they spent all school year working on. Yes, fans stormed Franklin Street after the win in the middle of the pandemic. Finally, we all know what happened with some of the Tar Heels after the game and the consequences that followed. These are all great reasons to have the feeling of Saturday night’s win stolen from all of us, but the fact of the matter is that the win against Duke on the road was easily the biggest win they’ve had since Coby White’s curly afro was on campus.

I’m sure Carolina fans reading this do not need a history lesson, but last year’s team went through as many trials and tribulations as I remember any Roy Williams-led team going through. Things started off innocent enough: the Heels started the season 6-0 including wins over the Notre Dame and Alabama. The Heels then lost to a really good Michigan team, but responded with a four-point victory over Oregon and left the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament with a 3-1 record (yes I’m counting the game against Elon). Then the wheels on this team fell off against Ohio State, and that is when everything spun out of control. Aside from two lay-up games against UCLA and Yale, the Heels wouldn’t see another victory until over a month later against Miami.

Let’s jump to the most important game in this story: the first one against Duke. Anybody that lives in the Triangle (or know any Duke fans in general because they’re everywhere for some reason) remembers how loud and obnoxious the fan base got going into the first game. Despite Cole Anthony returning from his injury, things were still really bad, and Duke to that point had been doing what they have always done: won a bunch of games with a bunch of highly-touted freshmen, which was good enough to be ranked 11th in the country.

Despite all of this, UNC went toe-to-toe with the Blue Devils, and the game went into overtime after Andrew Platek missed an important free throw with just seconds left in the game, which led to one of the dumbest sequences I’ve ever seen in college basketball. Tre Jones was fouled, made a free throw, then threw the ball off of the rim on his second attempt only to get the ball back and drain the game-tying shot. In overtime with just seconds left in the game the ball was inbounded to Platek, who lost the ball out of bounds, which led to the following sequence: Tre Jones is fouled, makes a free throw, misses the second, misses a game-winning shot, only to have Wendell Moore tip it in at the buzzer.

Having been in the building when all of this happened, I can honestly say that it was perhaps the most upsetting loss against Duke since the Austin Rivers shot in 2012. However, what made this a bit worse was the excitement over kicking a wounded puppy: Duke players cheered, they hugged, and they blew kisses to Carolina fans on their way to the tunnel. To make sure we’re on the same page: they had just beaten a sub-.500 Carolina team. Do I blame them? Not at all, because this rivalry doesn’t take days off, and even if UNC had zero wins I wouldn’t expect a different reaction. However, the insult to injury was very real in that Duke likely knew that this wasn’t just about winning against the Tar Heels: it was about burying their chances of getting into the NCAA Tournament.

With that said, let’s fast forward to this past weekend.

Despite the season getting off to a rocky start, the Tar Heels have been a much improved version of themselves compared to last year. Part of the reason is that for the first time in what feels like ages, Roy Williams won the recruiting battle against Coach K. The Blue Devils, however, have been struggling big time. I still don’t know who “the guy” is on their team (stop trying to make Matthew Hurt happen, it’s not going to happen), they have no real identity on offense or defense, and most importantly, they are missing a true star point guard that is able to do ridiculous things like what Tre Jones did last season.

It was hard to not feel overly optimistic going into Saturday’s game in Cameron, but I had a weird feeling that this game would still be a dog fight. It indeed was just that, as Duke was never completely knocked out of the game, and even had a chance to recreate some of their shenanigans from last season. However, Wendell Moore, the hero from the story above, committed a back-breaking turnover that allowed Leaky Black to put the nail in the coffin at the free throw line with seven seconds left in the game. Anthony Harris fouled up, Jeremy Roach missed an unimportant three-point attempt, and the game was over.

The way I see it, this win was important for two very important reasons. The first reason is that the program needed this win to help improve the optics of what this team is, to give them a quality win on the road, and to give the fan base something to be excited about. I truly think that despite UNC’s season going much better this year, many fans have been unable to shake the doom and gloom that last year’s season drenched us in. Sometimes the best medicine is taking down America’s most hated team, and the Heels were able to deliver.

The second reason why this was so important was revenge. Remember what I said about Duke fans being loud when UNC was going through hard times, and how their players were taunting fans on the way to the tunnel, knowing that they delivered a brutal blow to the Heels’ NCAA Tournament hopes? That is what Saturday’s game was for Carolina. Sure, there were no fans to taunt as they exited Coach K Court, but beating Duke in Cameron was the right fist in a two-piece combo that was delivered over the last four days, as Notre Dame took them down as well last night in Cameron. Duke’s at-large bid hopes are almost certainly dead, and the ironic part of this is that the NCAA Tournament will almost certainly take place as scheduled. UNC didn’t actually miss the tournament last year, as there was no tournament to miss.

In short, Carolina’s win over Duke this past Saturday was maybe as big of a win as we could’ve possibly hoped for to this point in the season. Sure, Duke wasn’t ranked and they are essentially the same wounded puppies that the Heels were last season, but that didn’t stop them from celebrating, right?

In the words of Michael Scott: “Well, well, well. How the turntables...”