CHAPEL HILL—North Carolina’s largest lead Saturday came fairly early in the second half. An offensive rebound rattled away from the rim and into the waiting arms of junior forward Harrison Ingram, who coolly connected from the midrange to put the Tar Heels up 63-48 with a full 13:16 left to play. The Blue Devils spent the rest of the evening playing catch-up, doing just enough to stay within striking distance but never enough to truly make it a game again.
In what had been billed as the best, most important regular-season meeting between these two rivals in half a decade, No. 3 North Carolina was simply the better team in Saturday’s 93-84 defeat of No. 7 Duke at the Dean E. Smith Center. The greater disappointment for head coach Jon Scheyer, though, is that his team “didn’t compete to the level that you need to” on the most important night of the season to date.
“You can make some mistakes. … All that’s normal. What's not normal is to not lay it all on the line the way that you need to,” Scheyer said after the game. “And so for me, as a coach, I want to watch the film, digest, and get some answers. But I can promise you this isn't going to be a thing we continue to do.”
On the stat sheet, the Blue Devils looked as if they did most everything right to earn a marquee road win. Duke took more shot attempts than its opponent, shot better from the field at a respectable 50.7% and kept up with the Tar Heels — the conference’s best rebounding team by a wide margin — on the glass, losing the battle just 35-34.
North Carolina separated itself at the 3-point and free-throw line, though, and in one all-important area that will not show up in the box score.
“The main story for me was the loose balls,” Scheyer said. “Just as you look throughout the game, they were hungrier to get them, and it turned into — I’ll go back and watch the film and see, but I bet close to 15, maybe even 20 points. And you have to give them credit for that.”
In particular, Scheyer tipped his cap to Ingram, a Stanford transfer playing his first game in the rivalry, for pouncing on a number of these loose balls on his way to a season-high 21 points and 13 rebounds. Ingram also paved the way for the Tar Heels beyond the arc, hitting 5-of-9 attempts to halt a number of Blue Devil comeback bids in their tracks.
“He was relentless,” Scheyer said of Ingram. “The loose balls that I’m talking about, he got a lot of them. I don't know how many, but he got a lot. And he played with a great energy, great physicality. He's relentless going after the ball. And then when he’s shooting the way that he did tonight … really good player.”
For the visitors, the senior-freshman backcourt duo of Jeremy Roach (20 points) and Jared McCain (23 points) was similarly relentless Saturday night. Roach, in his eighth game against North Carolina, led the team with 10 first-half points and was stellar from the midrange. McCain, himself a rivalry newcomer like Ingram, put on a show at the rim and led the team with 11 rebounds in a team-high 38 minutes.
On the flip side, fellow guards Tyrese Proctor and Caleb Foster struggled to add offense, combining for six points. It should be noted that Proctor, as Scheyer pointed out after the game, was superb defensively in limiting ACC leading scorer RJ Davis. Davis had just four points in the first half and finished with 17 points on 5-of-14 shooting.
“Jared is an absolute warrior, man,” Scheyer said. “Jared McCain competes every single play and look, did he make mistakes out there? Sure. That's the game of basketball, you make mistakes. He just competes every play.”
It would be a shame not to mention graduate student Armando Bacot, who had perhaps his best game yet in what has already been a storied career against Duke. The star big man became just the second player in rivalry history to post 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in an astounding tour de force as the Blue Devil game plan instead targeted Davis on defense.
In doing so, Bacot won the battle down low against fellow top-20 Wooden Award candidate and preseason All-ACC First Team selection Kyle Filipowski. Filipowski ultimately wound up with 22 points, but 16 of those came with Duke working to overcome a 10-point halftime deficit. The seven-footer struggled from outside, hitting just 1-of-6 3-point attempts.
For Bacot and the Tar Heels, keeping Filipowski and the Blue Devils away from the charity stripe was the biggest little victory of the night. Duke did not attempt a free throw in the first half and Bacot stayed out of foul trouble after dealing with such issues in both rivalry contests a season ago. Overall, the Tar Heels shot 18-of-25 at the free-throw line while Duke went 9-for-11.
“Armando was terrific,” North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis said. “... His ability to play defense without fouling. Filipowski is one of the better players in the country. Not only can he score, he draws fouls, and we were concerned about that going into the game.”
In just more than a month, Duke will get another crack at North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium. In the meantime, the two rivals have work to do to ensure that the rematch has the same high stakes as Saturday’s Tar Heel win, but the chances seem high: Neither team has another ranked opponent on the schedule in the leadup to the March 9 regular-season finale.
The Blue Devils will look to begin that work Wednesday night when Notre Dame visits Durham for a 9 p.m. tipoff. Duke took the season’s first meeting 67-59.
“This group hasn’t gotten it perfect all the time,” Scheyer said. “... They always respond though. They always respond. And so for me, I'm looking forward to seeing how we respond on Monday, practice on Tuesday, and then getting ready for our game on Wednesday.”
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.