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UNC win vs Duke: Three things we learned

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Champs.

Duke v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The #5 UNC Tar Heels put the exclamation point on their regular season conference championship with a home win against #17 Duke on Senior night, finishing the season with a 2-game lead over the second-place team. Here’s what we learned from the rivalry win:

1. At the right time, this team has figured out how to be clutch.

Throughout this season, one of the few knocks on UNC has been their inability to close games. They went back and forth against Kentucky and lost. They let Georgia Tech pull away from them in the last few minutes. They couldn’t seal the deal against Duke at Cameron. But recently, it looks like something has clicked.

Against Louisville, after a contested game throughout, UNC pulled away before letting Louisville cut the lead back down to 11 at the end. And this time, in a game with 24 lead changes, the Heels were able to clamp down in crunch time. Justin Jackson hit a three-pointer and then added two near-consecutive assists to give his team a 6-point lead, and the Heels never lost the lead after that. They held Duke scoreless for about 2 and a half minutes near the end of the game.

Whatever the word “clutch” means, this game was it for the Tar Heels, in the biggest game of the season. And that’s not even mentioning Joel Berry’s uncanny ability to make a basket whenever his team needs him most. Whenever a lead was threatened or lost, there was Berry, draining jumpers or driving on defensive mismatches, neutralizing whatever it was Duke had done. His 28 points were incredible on their own, but perhaps even more impressive was their timing within the game.

These were the score margins for UNC every time Berry hit a field goal: -1, +2, -3, 0, -4, -1, +1, +2, +4. Yes, it was a close game, so it makes sense that a player would have been hitting shots when the game was close, but Berry’s ability to take control of a basketball game when it matters most was on full display nevertheless.

This clutch gene extends to defense as well. After a torrid shooting half from both teams in the first 20 minutes, while the Heels were ahead by two points, it was clear that it is not a good idea to get into a shootout with Duke, especially when your team is better than theirs. Duke was 4-8 from three in the first half, and UNC held them to 3-11 in the second. After shooting better than 50% from the field in the first, Duke was only 36.7% in the second. This defensive lockdown was key to the Heels being able to come away with the win.

2. Isaiah Hicks is back, y’all

Isaiah Hicks has had a frustrating couple of weeks. While he has had a propensity for fouling, it has seemed that his reputation is preceding him in the past several games, and he hasn’t been able to play starters’ minutes due to quick, cheap, and unnecessary fouls. The validity of the foul calls could be debated all day, but just like with Grayson Allen and tripping incidents, at some point, you lose the benefit of the doubt, and you need to understand that.

Against the Blue Devils, Hicks was able to do exactly that. After picking up two fouls in the first half, Hicks was able to play effective defense without fouling for the rest of the game, and played a respectable 22 minutes. In those minutes, he showed us exactly what we’d been missing, wreaking havoc on the Duke interior to the tune of 21 points and 9 rebounds on 7-9 shooting, and added two assists for good measure. The smaller Jayson Tatum simply could not handle his strength, athleticism, and nose for the basket.

All Hicks had to do was play his normal game, and he was able to dominate. With stretch fours and small-ball being one of the big trends in college basketball, it’s not a stretch to think that this could be a preview of the kind of postseason Hicks could have if he can continue to stay on the court. His size and athleticism make him a mismatch against nearly anybody he faces, and it’s not too late for him to become a real game-changer in the postseason.

3. Duke is as hatable, if not more so, as ever, and this rivalry continues to be the best in sports.

This year, more than any other in recent memory, has been a reminder to anybody who needed it why exactly Duke is the worst. It was all on full display: Grayson Allen throwing elbows and then snapping back his head as if he was the one who had been hit, the excessive iso-ball (Duke had eight assists the whole game. EIGHT. Theo Pinson almost equaled that on his own), Mike Krzyzewski’s 6.5-man rotation which leaves 5-star players rotting on the bench, and the incessant whining to the referees.

In a year where the team was consensus #1 with Allen as the near-consensus NPOY, this win was necessary to make the world of college basketball feel properly aligned again. Like I wrote in my Game Preview, the two schools represent opposites in many different ways, and this makes every matchup feel like the stakes are as high as they can be, even when the ACC regular season has been clinched already.

Twenty. Four. Lead changes. Now that’s a fun basketball game. The caliber of play and emotion that these two teams bring to the court every time simply can’t be matched. At the end of the day, though, the better team won, and all is right with the world.

#GTHD.

Well, I guess GameDay wasn’t wrong...