Most stories, at some point, have an ending. Maybe the Tobacco Road saga will run its course someday, but for now, the rivalry has new life.
Duke stared down archrival North Carolina down the stretch Saturday night inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, emerging victorious 63-57 behind a defensive clinic by freshman center Dereck Lively II and a combined 44 points from Jeremy Roach, Tyrese Proctor and Kyle Filipowski. In doing so, the Blue Devils gave Jon Scheyer a win in his first Tar Heel matchup as head coach and avenged their Final Four loss at the hands of Hubert Davis’ North Carolina squad back in April 2022.
"They just had a big-time will to win," Scheyer said when asked after the game about his team's ability to make winning plays down the stretch. "Even talking to them before the game, they just had a look. We've gotten tougher from the experiences we've gone through, I think we've gotten closer. ... We've just blocked it all out and kept pushing forward. We have to do the same thing now in a different way."
As the two-minute mark in the second half came and went with the game tied at 57-57, an offensive rebound by Lively gave the Blue Devils (17-6, 8-4 in the ACC) a late chance for a lead. It was Lively who capitalized on that opportunity himself, adding one last game-changing play to his shining night with a thunderous, go-ahead slam.
A missed 3-point attempt by North Carolina forward Leaky Black on the next possession then gave Duke the chance to slam the door, and Roach took it. The junior captain—who finished with a game-high 20 points—busted up the middle on the following possession to put his team up 61-57, effectively closing the book on the Tar Heels’ hopes.
"I wanted it to be in my hands," Roach said of his game-sealing drive. "I wanted to take—I wanted that moment."
"Definitely was a bit personal for me," Roach added. "I mean, what happened last year, obviously, but just wanted to come out here and do anything I can to get this win, and we did that."
To begin the second half, Filipowski and Proctor worked to build upon the one-point lead they had helped to seize in the waning minutes of the first. Filipowski’s baseline jumper opened the scoring, Proctor followed up a Black 3-pointer with a driving layup and the Blue Devils entered the half’s first media timeout with their biggest lead of the game at 39-35.
Black—almost single-handedly—kept the Tar Heels (15-7, 7-5) within striking distance, though. He hit two triples for North Carolina’s first six points of the second half; no other Tar Heel got on the board between the break and the 13:13 mark, when junior guard Caleb Love’s triple cut the Duke lead to 44-41.
All that 3-point success opened the door for North Carolina to retake the lead. A driving, fast-break finish by Bacot forced the Blue Devils into a timeout, and Love wasted no time giving his Tar Heels a 45-44 lead when play resumed. Duke’s early attempt at a knockout punch had, it seemed, screeched to a halt.
From there, the matchup became the type of blow-for-blow affair that Duke and North Carolina have come to expect over the years. Neither team built its lead higher than a single possession until the guts of the game, when Roach stretched the Duke lead to four points in the final minute.
"For [Roach] to find this consistency of who he is and who we need him to be," Scheyer said, "I'm just really proud of him and his leadership, talking and being in attack mode."
After five quick Tar Heel points and nearly three minutes without a Blue Devil bucket to begin the night, Roach picked up where he left off after his 21-point night against Wake Forest, opening the account for his team from the elbow. Moments later, his transition three cut the North Carolina lead to 7-5, setting the stage for his big night.
Roach was the driving force for Duke leading up to the break, totaling a team-high 10 first-half points and five rebounds. After a coast-to-coast Proctor finish pulled the Blue Devils within a single point, Roach’s and-one put Duke up 26-24 with 3:51 in the half. With time to spare before intermission, the cries of the Cameron Indoor crowd already began to reach fever pitch.
The Tar Heels never retook the lead before halftime, with Proctor’s late 3-pointer breaking a 30-30 tie. The Aussie guard was right behind his veteran teammate with nine points and three assists as Duke exited the first 20 minutes clinging to a 33-32 advantage.
Dereck Lively II rose to the occasion early and often Saturday, blocking three shots—two by Armando Bacot—before the first media timeout. The freshman center slowed Bacot in those opening minutes, but the Tar Heel star made inroads as the half rolled on, entering the break with a game-high 12 points.
In the end, Lively stood out as an undeniable star for the Blue Devils in a game won, in large part, due to Duke’s defensive effort. He limited Bacot to two points in the second half while setting career-highs in blocks (eight, a Duke-North Carolina record), rebounds (14) and minutes (34).
"Dereck Lively just changed the game," Scheyer said. "Just his rim protection. I'm so proud, I've talked to you guys about this before, but the journey ... for Dereck, getting hurt in the preseason, continuing to just battle through, finding his rhythm. And to do what he did today—one, I'm not surprised, because he's worked incredibly hard. ... But, two, I'm just proud of him for that."
North Carolina entered Saturday's game as the conference leader in free throw makes and attempts by a wide margin, with no ACC team within 61 makes or 83 attempts. But the Tar Heels shot just three free throws against Duke, while the Blue Devils went 11-of-15 from the line.
"I'm just stating the fact that we shot 150 more free throws than anybody in a conference," Davis said. "And tonight we only shot three."
Scheyer said after the game that keeping the Tar Heels away from the charity stripe was part of Duke's game plan.
"They get to the foul line more than anybody," he said. "And so for us, just making them earn. ... Make them earn it. Don't just give them free throws."
As the battle began, Filipowski—the Blue Devils’ leading scorer and seven-time ACC Rookie of the Week—was noticeably absent with two points in the first 10 minutes. After a first-half turnover in front of the energized Tar Heel bench, though, Filipowski seemed to find another gear. On the ensuing Duke possession, he was fouled by North Carolina freshman Jalen Washington on a near-thunderous two-handed attempt. He went on to finish with 14 points and seven rebounds, albeit on 4-of-14 shooting.
Black, who averages 6.8 points per game, had a standout night on offense. The graduate student totaled 13 points with 3-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc, where he buoyed the Tar Heel attack at crucial moments throughout the second half.
After the game, Scheyer provided an update on freshman forward Dariq Whitehead, who missed his third-straight game Saturday with a sprain in his lower left leg suffered in Duke's Jan. 23 loss at Virginia Tech. Whitehead participated in warmups Saturday after he "was having some stiffness yesterday in practice," per Scheyer.
"He’s really close to full health," Scheyer said. "The next thing is just being game-ready. For him, he can add such a different dimension to our team. I don't know about Monday yet, I have to talk to him [about] how he felt today. But we felt like this was a next step to just be out there, and test it, and see how it feels."
With the win, Duke moves ahead of the Tar Heels in the ACC standings and stays within one loss of first-place Clemson. The Blue Devils, who have now won three consecutive games for the first time since Dec. 10, next set their sights on a Monday showdown at Miami.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.