It’s over. Thank God, it’s over.
The ACC regular season has been taxing on the souls of Tar Heel Nation. This year’s team is as inconsistent as last year’s team was bad. The last four games would have tested even the sturdiest of souls. Smash Louisville. Humbled by Marquette. Comeback against Florida State. Comeback comes up short at Syracuse. And now this. An annihilation of Duke on Senior Night.
I suppose all’s well that ends well. This win was cleansing to the soul. It showed a complete demolition of one team that was ill-equipped to compete with Carolina. UNC led the entire game, Duke could only alter the margins. And now, unless the NCAA becomes completely transparent about their desire to help Duke in any way that it can, their tournament hopes rest with winning the ACC Tournament.
Here are three things learned from a night of catharsis and celebration:
Last year, during the bad times, Duke needed a buzzer beater in regular time AND overtime to beat Carolina in the Dean Dome.
This year, Duke, with the services of Jalen Johnson, got beaten in Cameron decisively, if not comprehensively. And last night, Carolina showed Duke what happens when you can’t match up with our bigs and Caleb Love sees that gothic script on an opponent’s chest.
Mark Williams brought some juice, but leading scorer Matthew Hurt was mostly useless until the second half. The box score will show that Duke had a 46-28 advantage in points in the paint, but I dismiss this as mostly drives by Steward and Roach, and Duke’s astounding 23 points off of turnovers, something Carolina simply must fix if they want a chance at ACC Tournament glory.
Bottom line, Hurt didn’t want to bang down low. UNC brought the bodies, the blocks, the swats, the fouls that were kinda iffy, and plenty of swagger:
Leaky ➡️ Day'Ron ☝️— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) March 7, 2021
@espn - https://t.co/SoKalgIMMX #CarolinaFamily | @dayron_sharpe pic.twitter.com/4bQAXvsmIV
Kess with the putback dunk #CarolinaFamily | @WalkerKessler13 pic.twitter.com/fsITLX4Jcq— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) March 7, 2021
This year’s Duke team was a terrible match up against a stout Tar Heel front court. And if the Blue Devils were only going hit 19% 3FG on the night, they really had no chance.
Good Shooting, Good Results
It would have been tough to match the three-point shooting display Carolina, and Caleb Love specifically, put on in round one in Durham. UNC shot 59% and Love went b-a-n-a-n-a-s, hitting 4-5 from distance. It was unlike anything we’d seen from the St. Louis freshman all year.
While he has yet to hit such lofty heights again, The Heels did hit 44.4% of their 3’s last night in Chapel Hill, including 4-7 from Kerwin Walton and a surprise 2-3 from Garrison Brooks! Brooks even hit a step-back with the shot clock expiring, where has that been all season?!!
That's tuff @__garro— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) March 6, 2021
@espn - https://t.co/SoKalgIMMX #CarolinaFamily pic.twitter.com/yBJeYNjHfR
More important than the excellent three-point shooting was Carolina’s free throw shooting. This category is near and dear to Roy Williams’ heart, as his philosophy demands that Carolina make more free throws than the opponents attempt. But with Bacot, Brooks, and Sharpe taking a lot of those free throws, results have been grim at times, with free throw percentage being the second scariest statistic on the box score after turnovers.
The Tar Heels held their nerve, though, shooting 81% to Duke’s 75%, and to Roy’s delight, made 21 free throws while Coach K’s crew only attempted 16. If Carolina didn’t have such a great shooting night (like they have for most of the season), or Duke wasn’t such a poor team this year, those free throws could have made the difference.
Momentum Into the Postseason
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before? Carolina has an impressive win, and Tar Heel Nation extrapolates that performance onto future games.
We’ve all been bit hard in the butt by this before, so it’s easy to not want to get pulled in again. But just look at this bracket:
IT'S TOURNEY TIME.— ACC Men's Basketball (@accmbb) March 7, 2021
More details » https://t.co/inOSoKNtLw pic.twitter.com/QeSzJhyjCd
Now, we have no idea what Virginia Tech is going to look like after an extended absence. Who will play? Who’s missing? Will the Hokies have enough players to field a team in time? Who knows? But if the Heels can claw past Virginia Tech, Florida State has shown vulnerability, and Virginia is not a vintage ACC regular season champion, they’re just standing at the top of the pile of wreckage that is this year’s ACC.
Carolina has the depth, the frontcourt, and enough streaky shooting to make things interesting in the late-night half of the bracket. If nothing else, UNC can act as a firewall to make sure that Duke doesn’t do anything squirrelly, like beat Florida State in the quarterfinals in an impossible run at the NCAA Tournament via automatic qualification. Duke’s worst nightmare right now is that they must win the ACC tourney to make the NCAA’s, and the same Tar Heels squad that just tore them apart is on their half of the bracket.