CHAPEL HILL—It’s that time again. The best rivalry in sports is back for another chapter, as Duke makes the eight-mile trip to the Dean E. Smith Center to face North Carolina. Through 20 minutes, another classic appears to be in store as the Blue Devils cling to a 33-31 lead.
Can Duke play spoiler?
Roughly 20 minutes before tipoff, Senior Night festivities began here in the Dean Dome. Five senior managers were honored, then it was time for the five Tar Heel seniors to get props from the 20,000-plus in attendance. Reserve guard Jackson Watkins, backup forward Justin McKoy and starting power forward Pete Nance were up first, and there was much admiration from the home crowd.
But, as expected, the most raucous cheers were reserved for Leaky Black and Armando Bacot. The two have been through it all in Chapel Hill, going from 14-19, to 18-11, to national runner-ups, to fighting for their postseason fates Saturday evening.
You would think the energy of this night, and the stakes at play for North Carolina, would lead to a statement win for Bacot, Black and company. But Duke has served as the villain in this building before, with its last win on Senior Night in Chapel Hill coming in 2015. Can the Blue Devils do it again?
It was tough sledding offensively for the Blue Devils early. Kyle Filipowski traveled twice before the 17-minute mark, and was promptly subbed out for fellow freshman Dariq Whitehead. Roach, despite his prowess in the midrange, could not get a jumper to go over Bacot when it was his turn to attack.
At that point, Duke appeared headed for a poor opening half. But that is why basketball is played over 40 minutes, as the Blue Devils weathered the storm to make it 5-2 Tar Heels at the first TV timeout. From there, a Jeremy Roach three and a Tyrese Proctor jumper gave Duke its first lead of the evening at 7-5.
Shoot the rock
Neither team has been excelled from long range this season, as Duke and North Carolina are shooting 33% and 31.2% from beyond the arc on the year, respectively. But that does not mean they are unwilling to shoot it when it's there, and the three has been a key part of both teams’ offensive repertoire so far.
Roach has connected on a pair of triples, including one off an offensive rebound — a staple of the Blue Devils’ second-chance offense. Mark Mitchell also connected on a 3-pointer from the left wing to give Duke an 18-14 edge. North Carolina has played through Bacot, but open shots along the perimeter have arisen for Black, RJ Davis and company. The Tar Heels finished 2-of-9 from downtown for the half, while the Blue Devils finished 3-of-9.
Exactly a month prior to Saturday, Dereck Lively II had his breakout moment, reeling in 14 boards and rejecting eight shots while squaring off against Bacot. Duke, of course, won the contest 63-57, while North Carolina could not get its star big going in the second half — the All-American finished with a substandard 14 points.
Through 20 minutes, both centers have made their mark, albeit in different ways. Bacot slammed it home for the first points of the night, showing a bit of emotion as the Tar Heel fans roared with joy. Scheyer elected to have his players double Bacot on the dribble, and the strategy paid off once in the form of a North Carolina turnover. Yet the Virginia native could only be contained for so long, with Bacot going to work just past the midpoint of the first half. The senior had a bucket and rejection of Filipowski on consecutive possessions, ending the period with nine points and six rebounds.
Lively, as has been the case all year, was more of a force on the defensive end, rejecting a pair of shots, including an early block of Leaky Black that sent the ball into the first row. The Philadelphia native has also been moderately active on the offensive glass, but he enters intermission with no points, two rebounds and two fouls. He will have to pick it up a bit down the stretch if Duke is to hang on for the win.
Player of the half: Jeremy Roach
It was always Roach. Offensively, Duke looked out of sorts for the first few minutes. That changed when its captain got into a groove, as Roach connected on a pair of early triples to get himself — and his team — into a rhythm.
Coming in, Roach had averaged 19.5 points over the last two contests, including his first career double-double against Virginia Tech one week prior. On Saturday, he has been assertive, and his communication with Scheyer during stoppages has served as a bridge between staff and players. Roach ended the half with six points on 2-of-8 from the field — not the most efficient half he has played, but that will not stop the junior from attacking in the second period.
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Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.