CHAPEL HILL—This game itself never needs any extra factors to make it special. The 259 previous meetings, 12 national championships and eight miles between the two schools guarantee greatness each time the ball tips off.
But Saturday’s Duke-North Carolina contest had heavy postseason implications to go along with all the usual stakes, especially for the Tar Heels. North Carolina came into the contest projected to miss the NCAA tournament and although Duke’s ticket to the Big Dance is likely already secured, the Blue Devils were fighting for ACC and NCAA tournament seeding.
Duke ended up being the one to pad its resume, winning 62-57 at the Dean Smith Center to sweep North Carolina for the first time since the 2019-20 season. Seven-foot freshman Kyle Filipowski paced the Blue Devils all evening with 22 points and 13 rebounds, which was enough to overcome the 17-point nights from both Armando Bacot and RJ Davis.
"It's his motor, he goes after his own rebounds. I haven't seen many guys do that so I think it's that," big man Ryan Young said of Filipowski. "It's fun to play with a guy like him."
The stage was set with 1:38 left in the contest. Duke (23-8, 14-6 in the ACC) was down by one, and Filipowski had both hands on his hips as he slowly approached the free-throw line. He dribbled once before each free throw and drained both, putting the Blue Devils up 58-57.
"I've definitely made free throws a really important part of my game in practice every day," Filipowski said.
Seconds later, junior captain Jeremy Roach used a crafty finish in the lane to extend Duke’s lead to three. After 40 minutes of grueling basketball, the Blue Devils had put away the Tar Heels (19-12, 11-9).
"Good teams are gonna muck out some tough wins, especially here," Roach said.
After a brief North Carolina run with roughly 10 minutes left in the game, Duke answered back and tied the contest up at 49-49. The teams swapped one-point leads, and just when it looked like Duke might extend its lead to three, Roach missed a fast-break layup. Davis made the Blue Devils pay and banked it off the glass to give the Tar Heels the one-point advantage.
Early in the second half, it looked like Duke could stretch its lead to double digits with 14 minutes left to play. But Caleb Love, Bacot and Davis each scored unanswered points and knotted the contest up at 43-43 with 12:08 remaining.
No one from either side scored for the next two minutes. Filipowski used some physical post play to force a basket and give Duke the lead, but only for a moment. Davis and Pete Nance drained consecutive threes to put North Carolina up 49-45, its largest lead of the half up to that point.
"When [Mark Mitchell] cut it to two, we called the timeout, got [Lively] back in," head coach Jon Scheyer said. "That was the moment for us. That was the moment to dig down."
Both teams struggled to find the bottom of the net to start the second period. For Duke, it was Roach who, as he has so many times before, ignited the Blue Devils’ scoring with a pull-up jumper. To make the start to the half even rougher for Duke, freshman center Dereck Lively II picked up his fourth foul at the 17:06 mark. The big man did not reenter the game until the eight-minute mark.
Duke was in need of a spark after Lively’s foul. Fortunately for the Blue Devils, freshman guard Tyrese Proctor and Filipowski were up for the task. Each player grabbed their own rebound after missing on back-to-back possessions and went up strong for the bucket, giving Duke a 41-35 lead with 15 minutes of play left.
The game started out sloppy for the Blue Devils. They came up empty on their first six possessions, but some well-executed post defense from Filipowski and Lively kept the game close.
"[Filipowski is] a joy to play with. He's more of the offensive punch, I'm the defensive punch," Lively said. "We just try to keep hitting people with the one-two."
Most surprisingly for Duke, it only had one assist to its six turnovers in the opening 20 minutes. Duke had three of those turnovers in the first four minutes of play and could not find any sort of rhythm until Roach drained a three at the 15:34 mark. Proctor and Roach combined for Duke’s next six points and after two Filipowski free throws, the Blue Devils were able to jump out to a 13-9 lead.
But neither team could create much separation on the scoreboard, with the largest lead of the half being Duke’s 31-25 lead at the 3:26 mark. North Carolina quickly chopped the deficit down and made it so the Blue Devils only had a 33-31 lead at the half.
The story for the opening period was that neither team shot particularly well from the field. Neither had a clip above 40%, so it came down to rebounding, free throws, turnovers and clutch individual play to determine which squad had the upper hand at any given time. Duke outrebounded the Tar Heels 22-16 in the first half, but North Carolina drew more free throws at pivotal moments to counteract.
Even with all the action, the teams nearly always balanced each other out. Love converted a physical and-one on a fastbreak to tie the contest up at 23-23, but Whitehead immediately responded with a gritty and-one of his own to give Duke its lead back.
With the win and Pittsburgh's loss to Miami, Duke has secured the No. 4 seed and double-bye in the ACC tournament. It will begin its postseason Thursday at 2:30 p.m. in Greensboro, N.C., against one of No. 5-seed Pittsburgh, No. 12-seed Florida State or No. 13-seed Georgia Tech.
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Jake Piazza is a Trinity senior and was sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.