This was the North Carolina that head coach Hubert Davis kept saying existed, but had done little to actually prove it.
This version of the Tar Heels looked not only NCAA Tournament worthy, but a team that can put together a run.
This version battled against seemingly the last 40 years of Duke basketball with nearly half of the players Mike Krzyzewski has coached standing behind the home bench and came away with a 94-81 victory Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
And this was the signature win that had eluded first-year coach Hubert Davis in previous marquee matchups against Purdue, Kentucky and Tennessee. Davis is already an endeared former player, but he will forever be the coach that ended the Coach K era at Duke with a home loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It prompted junior forward Armando Bacot to declare it one of the biggest wins in Carolina’s history that wasn’t a national championship.
“It was important for us to win, but it was really important for us to play well,” Davis said. “…The times that we played ranked opponents — Tennessee, Purdue, good teams like Wake Forest and Miami, Kentucky — not only did we (lose,) we lost big. And I think it was important for us to be good against a good team.”
This certainly wasn’t the same Carolina (23-8, 15-5 ACC) that lost by 20 to Duke (26-5, 16-4) a month ago in Chapel Hill.
They had more fight. They had more heart. They had answers when it seemed the game could get away from them.
For the first time in program history four players scored 20 or more points.
Bacot, who led the way with 23 points, said he believed Carolina stunned Duke in the first half when it didn’t fold after allowing a 14-0 run. The Heels faced their biggest deficit of the game at 37-28 with 3:52 left, but responded with an 11-4 spurt to pull within two at halftime.
“We just came in confident and we believed,” Bacot said. “We know how good of a team we are. We know at times we’ve had lapses, but we came and we knew we were going to win the game and I feel like that’s what really helped us, just being confident.”
It took more than just confidence. It took a toughness that Davis was questioning going back to their home loss to Pittsburgh on Feb. 16.
And these Heels were tough. The starting five played the entire second half in an arena that felt like an old school Cameron Indoor Stadium setting. Like before it had central air conditioning and was a sweat box that Davis himself played in the last time UNC was unranked and beat a top 5 Blue Devils’ squad.
That win was in 1990, during Davis’ sophomore year. And now as coach he has team that can tell their own stories of how they took down Duke on a night when Krzyzewski was being celebrated.
That’s why Davis said he didn’t feel any sense of personal validation considering there are those who questioned if he was the right hire.
“What gives me joy, as a coach is seeing our guys be successful seeing them have smiles on their faces, seeing them have memories that last for a lifetime,” Davis said. “Like they’ll never forget this. They’ll be talking to their friends and family for the rest of their life. That gives me great joy just to be able to be part of that. And so, ranked, unranked, Quad 1 win, Quad none win, not since 1990. We came in here. We competed. And we’re fortunate enough to beat a great, not good, Duke team tonight.”
Here’s what we learned in the Heels’ win:
Carolina’s adjustments from its loss
On paper, Carolina didn’t match up well with the Blue Devils. That’s why in the first meeting Davis gambled by putting Bacot on Duke’s heralded freshman Paolo Banchero.
Davis said he tried to “mix and match” the lineup in the first game and “it just didn’t work.” The plan backfired when Bacot picked up two early fouls and Duke went on a run in the first half and the Heels never recovered.
“I told them, these are the matchups. whoever’s playing the power forward position, Brady that’s you, whoever’s playing center, Mando (Bacot) that’s you,” Davis said. “I just went down the line. I said, we’re gonna man up.”
UNC forward Brady Manek played Banchero most of the game and that left UNC’s defensive stopper Leaky Black on A.J. Griffin, who scored 27 points in that first game.
Banchero took advantage of his size and strength on drives to the basket, which he didn’t do much of the first meeting when he was held to 13 points, and scored 15 in the first half. Banchero didn’t quite get the same looks in the second half, shooting 4-for-13 from the field, and scoring just eight to finish with 23 points.
Davis said the Heels did a better job of playing help-side defense to close up some of the gaps Banchero drove in the first half.
Manek, who scored 20 points including five 3-pointers, made Banchero chase him around too, which may have contributed to him not being as strong offensively for Duke.
“I’ve always prided myself being hard to guard,” Manek said. “I definitely couldn’t guard myself.”
Bacot nearly flawless
Bacot struggled at times this season when facing 7-footers. But against Mark Williams, he had arguably his best offensive performance of the season.
Bacot made each of his first six shot attempts, his only miss coming when he attempted a jumper at the free throw line. That was his only missed shot as he finished 10-for-11 from the field.
Bacot was in foul trouble the first meeting and had just 12 points on 4-for-10 shooting. But he shook off that performance, although he came close to getting his third foul late in the first half that may have changed everything. But A.J. Griffin was called for a blocking foul and Bacot remained in the game.
That was a good thing for Carolina. Bacot didn’t surpass Brice Johnson with a 24th double-double for the season -- he finished with seven rebounds -- but he’s fine with not having that record for now.
“This also proves that Armando is the Player of the Year in the ACC,” UNC sophomore guard R.J. Davis said.
Heels’ backcourt shined
Sophomores R.J. Davis had 21 points and Caleb Love scored 15 of his 22 points in the second half. But more important for Carolina was the guard duo played under control. Carolina had just one turnover in the second half and that didn’t come until two minutes were left in the game.
Davis made the right decisions with the ball. He’s finished three drives to the basket shooting over Banchero and Williams. He’s also been wise to pull up in the lane for short jumpers. Davis 3-pointer just before the buzzer pulled UNC within two going into halftime.
Love missed his first eight shots including two that got swatted out of bounds and got the crowd into it. But once he hit a 3-pointer he made four of his final nine attempts. Love had four turnovers in the first meeting, but had five assists and only one turnover on Saturday.
“It was all about mental toughness and relying on each other to make big plays, I think that’s what we were able to do,” R.J. Davis said. “I mean, obviously, the temperature of the gym was kind of hot, the crowd was into it. We were into it. It was just a full energized game and that I loved being part of.”
This story was originally published March 7, 2022 11:01 AM.