UNC’s win at Duke delivers excitement even without rankings or fans in the sport’s best rivalry


Caleb Love picked a hell of a game to play a hell of a game.

North Carolina’s freshman point guard scored a career-high 25 points (9-of-14 shooting, including 4-of-5 from 3-point range) and had seven assists, ushering a critical 91-87 Tar Heels win at Duke on Saturday night to enhance his team’s NCAA Tournament profile.

In doing so, Love and UNC also devastated Duke in the process.

It’s been a long time since a North Carolina point guard was this proficient against the team’s hated rival. The last Carolina player to score at least 25 and dish at least five dimes against Duke: Ty Lawson 12 years ago. 

Here’s an even bigger wow, courtesy of UNC: “Love became the first Tar Heel to ever score 25 points and have seven assists at Duke and just the third Tar Heel to reach those figures in any game vs. the Blue Devils. Charlie Scott had 34 points and eight assists in 1969 and Phil Ford had 28 and 8 in 1976, both at Carmichael Auditorium.”

Love, a former five-star recruit who made our preseason list of the top 101 players with only a little room to spare, finally arrived in a meaningful way. 

“I don’t care if they’re five-star or three moons, that doesn’t make one bit of difference to me,” UNC coach Roy Williams said postgame. 

It wasn’t all offense either. Love made up for some poor turnovers with one witty defensive inducement that sealed the game. On Duke’s penultimate possession Love coaxed Duke’s Wendell Moore Jr. into a travel under Duke’s basket (UNC had a foul to give and had just fouled the prior possession) with the game 89-87 in UNC’s favor and less than 10 seconds remaining. 

“I don’t think Caleb played the best game he can play by any means,” Williams said. “He played the best game that he’s played since he got to North Carolina. But I think he can be a great player, and I think he was big for us tonight.” 

This is the same frosh who shot 5 for 20 — with just one made 3-pointer — in his previous two games. A flip got switched Saturday; UNC-Duke tends to do that for some guys.

“I was in that zone,” Love said on the postgame Zoom. “Going into game I just knew I had to be a big part of my team getting this win. Just controlling the traffic. And just doing a lot of those things that point guards do. Like I said it’s been a long, long season for me, up and down.”  

Love’s performance gives UNC fans some hearty optimism over their NCAA tourney chances.

Because after all, that’s what this historic-for-the-wrong-reasons game was about. This 254th meeting between Carolina and Duke marked — as you heard all this week and on the broadcast — the first time in more than 60 years that both teams didn’t have numbers affixed to their names at the time of the game. The last time an unranked meeting happened was Feb. 27, 1960. UNC won that won as well (75-50).

“I don’t care if they’re five-star or three moons, that doesn’t make one bit of difference to me.”

UNC coach Roy Williams

Saturday’s outcome might have been closer for Duke than in 1960, but this was a worse result. The team’s treading in troubling waters, its NCAA Tournament future murkier by the day. The Blue Devils are 7-7 overall and 5-5 in the conference. This is the program’s most jagged start through 14 games since Mike Krzyzewski’s first few years coaching at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the early 1980s. Duke’s made every NCAA Tournament since 1996, but the streak is almost certainly going to end this year. 

Plop Duke in the same sandbox as Kentucky, Michigan State and Arizona — all huge/traditional March Madness programs that are overwhelmingly not favored to be in the bracket next month. 

The Blue Devils are 2-5 in their last seven games and are 1-3 in Quad 1 games, 2-2 in Quad 2 and 2-2 in Quad 3. This is a team that would not make an 80-team tournament if it began tomorrow. Entering Saturday, T-Ranketology put Duke at 12.2% to make the NCAAs based off 10,000 simulations of the rest of the season, conference tournament randomness included. But when those figures refresh on Sunday, the Blue Devils will almost certainly fall below 10%. 

Conversely, UNC will jump from 41.9% to something much closer to 50/50. The Heels are 12-6 with a respectable 7-4 mark in the ACC. Though living level on the bubble, UNC’s outlook is much rosier. These were the stakes of this game, so congratulations to UNC on a short-term reprieve. The Heels earning a road win helps all the more, because Saturday night was UNC’s first Quad 1 win. It’s 1-5 in Quad 1 and 5-1 in Quad 2. The résumé still needs work, but there’s a path. 

Beyond the tournament projections, consider the manner in which UNC pulled this off. Ninety-one points at Duke? A ricochet response. The Heels went from scoring a season-low 50 in 40 minutes at Clemson on Tuesday on to dropping half a hundred in the second half inside Cameron Indoor. Carolina also compiled 28 points off turnovers, its season-high and the most Duke’s allowed in — hello — a decade and a half. Between all that and Matthew Hurt’s no-show, it’s no surprise UNC won. If anything, it’s impressive Duke kept it close throughout.

UNC’s Caleb Love came up big for the Tar Heels with a career-high 25 points vs Duke

One of the top shooters in the ACC, Hurt had seven points and fouled out with only 22 minutes to his name. He had more fouls (two) than shots (one) in the first half. With four minutes remaining in a one-possession game, Hurt was DQ’d. If he’d been on the floor, it’s logical to see how it could have ended differently.

But it’s the latest opportunity lost in this lost season for Duke. It’s not an NCAA Tournament team and hasn’t been one since the start of the season. Saturday night merely reaffirmed this on the sport’s biggest regular-season stage. 

A thought about that stage and what this game gave us and what it didn’t. 

This has been a college basketball season of discomfort, fits and starts, dangerous unpredictability and ever-lingering concerns about what’s around the counter. We’ve had more than two months to try and adjust to watching college basketball on our televisions without fans at most of these games. You can easily make the case that college basketball is more reliant upon, and enhanced as a product by, the up-close-and-personal nature of having fans. Never was this more awkward or apparent than on Saturday night in Durham. The fans adorn the game. They enhance it. They surround it and enliven it. You take the Crazies out of Cameron, you take a lot of what gives this rivalry so much visceral appeal as a viewer. 

Despite this necessary measure, the teams did it again. Because the lesson of Saturday is the players and coaches make this rivalry what it is. UNC vs. Duke is captivating almost every time. If it ever wasn’t going to be, maybe this was the night, this season the season. Nope. Reliable as always. It’s been eons since we had Duke and UNC be this sub-standard at the same time. Yet the urgency that was affixed to Saturday’s matchup was irrefutable. UNC leaves in one direction, while Duke stays put, the slack on its schedule tightening, as hoops’ greatest rivalry delivers once more in a way — after this season — we should never have to see again.



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