CHAPEL HILL—Deep in the bowels of the Dean E. Smith Center, a celebration was breaking out.
But it emanated from the visiting locker room. One by one, the Duke coaching staff walked through the media hallway, clearly satisfied with what had occurred on Roy Williams Court above earlier Saturday evening.
“Oh yeah,” associate head coach Chris Carawell said. “Let’s go,” remarked assistant coach Amile Jefferson, a short, yet clear, indication of just how much the win meant. Before those two, it was head coach Jon Scheyer and assistant coach Jai Lucas, soaking it in.
And why would they not? It was far from pretty, but after 40 minutes of gritty, intense basketball, Duke had done enough to knock off North Carolina 62-57 on its Senior Night.
“That's what you dream about, coming in here and playing [in] these moments. Getting to quiet a crowd is what you always dream and pray for,” forward Mark Mitchell said.
With 1:57 remaining, the Tar Heels led 57-56. A triumphant sendoff for Armando Bacot, Leaky Black and Pete Nance — the three seniors in the starting lineup — appeared to be at their fingertips. But then, Kyle Filipowski coolly knocked down a pair of free throws to give the Blue Devils the edge, and after Mitchell snatched a rebound off a mad scramble, Jeremy Roach knifed through the lane and made it a three-point Duke lead.
The game was flipped on its head in a flash, and the raucous pro-Tar Heel crowd was reduced to silence. North Carolina had a chance to send it to overtime, but a desperation heave from Caleb Love clanked off the back iron before Dereck Lively II snatched his sixth rebound of the night and found Filipowski in the open court. As the clock wound down, Filipowski, in theory, could have attempted to dribble it out with RJ Davis giving chase.
But the freshman elected to put the exclamation point on this one, laying it home with 2.2 seconds remaining. Duke 62, North Carolina 57 — exactly a month after Duke 63, North Carolina 57.
“This means a lot, especially this year, we beat them the first time, but then beating them the second time is always the sweet icing on the top,” Roach said.
On that February night in Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Blue Devils shot just 39.3% from the field, had more turnovers than assists (12 to 10) and could not get any separation. That is, until Roach and Lively put their stamp on the contest, spurring a 6-0 Duke run to close it out.
This time around, the Blue Devils shot just 37.9% from the field, again had more turnovers than assists (eight to four) and once more, could not get any separation. But in the rare sequel that holds up to the original, Duke closed it out thanks to Roach and Filipowski, who spearheaded another 6-0 run to seal the season sweep of the Tar Heels.
That’s some symmetry. Scheyer said postgame that winning ugly is “kind of what we had to do for most games this year,” but the parallels between both duels with North Carolina stand above the rest. Getting it done without your best stuff is one thing against Boston College, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.
Getting it done against the program eight miles down the road, though? That is cause for the type of celebration that unfolded in the Duke locker room.
“It was definitely very victorious, it was definitely a little bit of a party,” Mitchell said.
Keep in mind, Duke grinded out these wins against a significantly more experienced team in North Carolina. Bacot, Black, Love and Davis have been through it all over the last three years, coalescing last March and April for a dramatic run to Championship Monday — with two historic wins against Duke to show for it. If anyone knows how to win these types of games, it would be the Tar Heels.
Well, think again. Duke, with a starting lineup of Roach and four freshmen, did what the moment required, getting the key baskets and the key stops a month apart against its hated rival.
Not to mention, the stakes on the other side. North Carolina really needed this one for multiple reasons. Entering Saturday, the Tar Heels were part of ESPN Bracketology’s First Four Out, needing a resume booster (or two) to lock down their spot in the Big Dance.
That desperation showed as the midway point of the second half neared. Duke led 43-36 after a jam by Mitchell, and apprehension filled the Dean Dome, from the students behind the basket to those stationed in the upper deck.
But then, the hosts clawed back into it. The Tar Heels went on a 13-2 run, punctuated by two triples from Davis and one from Nance, and they had the crowd buzzing.
Trailing 49-45, the Blue Devils played with some desperation of their own. Mitchell quickly went to the rim to cut the lead to two, and Scheyer immediately called timeout to get his team regrouped — and to sub in Lively, who had gone to the bench early in the half with four fouls.
“I told them, ‘Where else would you rather be? It's a one-possession game. We're in a great position to win this,’” Scheyer said on his message in that huddle. “But, it was their ball, we had to start with a stop. And we did that.”
Indeed they did, and then some. Playing with those four fouls, Lively went straight up against Davis as the latter tried to cut the Duke lead to one with under 30 seconds remaining.
“I've been working on that, since I was probably like 6-7, it’s been drilled into me. … Only thing I could do there was go straight up,” the Philadelphia native said.
Filipowski missed the front end of the ensuing one-and-one, but that just gave the Blue Devils another chance to lock in on the defensive end. Four days ago, Duke dealt with an onslaught from Jarkel Joiner in the last two minutes, with N.C. State nearly mounting a miraculous comeback after trailing by 12 late.
Scheyer said he had the whole team watch the film of that sequence. Up three late in Chapel Hill, that work paid off.
“Our guys did a great job of just elevating and extending our defense and they got the shot off, but it was a very difficult shot,” Scheyer said.
Now, the postseason begins. By virtue of its win and No. 25 Pittsburgh falling at No. 16 Miami earlier Saturday evening, Duke is locked in as the No. 4 seed in the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C.
Mitchell said that preparation for the conference tournament will start with a noon practice Sunday. But Saturday night in the Dean Dome meant a whole lot to the Blue Devils, and it showed after the aforementioned celebration.
“We're confident and we’re ready for this moment,” Roach said. “I mean, we're pretty much playing our best basketball right now. I mean obviously, we didn’t put that on display today, but I'm just happy.”
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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.