Celebrating the Duke win

For the first time in four tries with me in the building, Crystal City Sports Pub – home base for relocated Tar Heels in Northern Virginia – witnessed a Carolina victory in a big game. Though I am prone to such superstitions, this is not to imply that the place was itself bad luck. The sports bar is well known in the area and has housed UNC fans long before I moved to the area, and to be truthful, the streak of losses (at Duke 2011, regional final loss to Kentucky, and vs. Duke on Feb. 8) only survived our season-ending win last year because I was in attendance in Chapel Hill.

But I mention this because I was due for a big win experience at that place, which obviously differs starkly with those three losses, and is even a definitively different experience than the one I am most familiar with, being there for 30 or so Carolina victories over less significant opponents over the past two seasons. Shannon was in town this weekend to visit, and she caught the Carolina bar at its best: the packed house booed a friend of mine who joined us supporting her Blue Devils (out of respect, of course), cheered wildly in the first half, waited nervously (and sometimes frustratedly) during the second, and then sang the Alma Mater and fight song after the win. It was a quintessential experience for a remote Tar Heel basketball fan.

As for the game itself, it is difficult to imagine it going any better. Nine offensive possessions and 5:30 of game time, including the first television timeout, passed before Duke got its first defensive stop. Nearly every one of those nine scores came by aggressively exploiting our strengths over Duke, a significant size and skill advantage in the post, to score in the paint or after an offensive rebound and kick out. By that point, the score was already 18-5, and it would be 22-5 before Duke halted the run.

To be clear, the game was absolutely not over at that point; Duke had a window to mount a comeback, and on a different night they might have. But ultimately it was that initial run that was decisively insurmountable, as we answered every run Duke made, extended the lead to 26 in the second half, and never allowed Duke enough defensive stops to get close.

For a team that over two years has been somewhat usual in style for Roy Williams’ Carolina teams, struggling on occasion with offensive efficiency and winning games with elite defense, it was their most traditionally representative win yet. We sped the tempo to earn nine possessions in the first five minutes, scored on all of them to spur a run reminiscent of 2009, and sent a loud message to Duke that they were going to have to play at our tempo because they were going to play this game from behind.

Yet in one way this win was even more impressive than those that the 2005 and 2009 teams used to earn; one wonders if Saturday night’s game is what it looks like when a team with Roy Williams recruited talent is at its best offensively and plays elite defense. In 2009 at Cameron, UNC scored 101 points on Duke but never quite put them away in the way we put Duke away this year. It is debatable which was more impressive over the first eight minutes: that we had 22 points, or that Duke went into the second television timeout with only five. They finished the half with 24, its fewest in a half of the season.

I, like most UNC fans, was feeling the stress when Duke cut the lead to eleven in the second half, but in hindsight that stress was mostly due to lingering paranoia from the last time telling us that we can’t close games out. In reality, Duke was going to make a run; that is the nature of the sport and of Duke at home. We remained composed and closed the game out with our defense – after cutting the lead to eleven with more than five minutes on the clock, Duke didn’t score again until under two minutes, when the game was over.

This win is dangerous for fan expectations, as it shows a flash of how good this team can be based on all of the reasons we were the preseason national favorite. Virtually everyone in the college basketball media considers us the biggest threat to Kentucky and wants to see the rematch in the national title game. Let us hope that we truly are peaking at the right time, and perhaps that we even have further up to go – we have made a strong run since losing to Duke in Chapel Hill, despite still not having found our outside shot.

The evidence suggests that we really are that good. For 38 out of 40 minutes this year, we were better than Duke by a double-digit margin. We survived the entire season without a single bad loss (disregarding the margins of those losses). And we are fulfilling a pattern for this team. It is remarkable how precisely similar the 2011 and 2012 conference seasons were for Carolina: 14-2 records comprised of an early blowout loss on the road, a blown lead to Duke in the initial contest, and then a dominating, cruise-control win over Duke in the second to clinch the ACC title. This team, as a whole and as individual parts (Zeller and Barnes, in particular), plays its best basketball at the end of the season when it matters.

After the February 8 loss, one of my initial thoughts was worry that this great Carolina team full of extremely likeable players would not have much to show for their Carolina careers if Barnes and Henson join Zeller in the NBA next season. Whether we fulfill our goals of a national championship remains for the next few weeks to answer, but it is without question that they have responded toughly and stated emphatically that they are equipped to meet that goal. Regardless of that particular outcome, by beating Duke on Saturday they clinched something great to show for their careers: back-to-back ACC titles, both clinched against Duke, to provide an unequivocal answer to the question of which program has the momentum in the rivalry.

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