Wrap-up: Carolina beats Duke to Claim ACC Regular Season Title
UNC 81, Duke 67
You might have heard that over the weekend the Tar Heels handed No. 4 Duke an emphatic loss in the Smith Center to claim the regular-season ACC title. You also might have heard that despite a short-lived Duke run to bring its deficit to five in the second half, the game was never in doubt. UNC dominated the devils behind a commanding performance from its freshman point guard, Kendall Marshall. Lastly, it’s possible you heard that after Saturday’s romp, the Tar Heels are seen as potential Final Four contenders while the Blue Devils merely have questions surrounding their team that was once considered a lock to play in April.
In the almost 16-month history of the Rafters, this is the first time we’ve been able to write about a Duke win. How sweet is it? Let’s just say my fingers are shaking. Despite the fact that the most recent AP rankings rank Duke No. 5 and Carolina No. 6, it’s safe to say that those numbers could easily be reversed. A potential rubber match on Sunday has already kept me awake at night. Forget the holidays, this is the most wonderful time of the year.
But back to the game that has already taken place. Watching at a bar with dozens of other Carolina fans, every basket, miss, steal, free-throw, whistle, assist, foul and turnover was met with cheers or jeers. Speaking of turnovers, Nolan smith had five to just three assists, but I digress. While every possession felt like life and death in the moment, the reality was Carolina controlled the game for the majority of the match. In many ways, it was a mirror of the first match-up, minus the second half Duke rally. Smith and Seth Curry got plenty of points, but when two players score literally 75 percent of the team’s total (50 of 67 total points), the rest of team has to contribute in any way it can, and the Devils didn’t respond.
Carolina on the other hand delivered a balanced attack, perhaps evidenced by Marshall’s 11 assists and no player topping 20 points. Barnes had his routine 18 points to lead the team, and Henson notched his routine double-double. March has just begun, but it’s already given us a reason to remember why we love it so much.
- Kendall Marshall is a serious player. In case you didn’t already hold this notion, Saturday cemented the fact that Marshall is one of the top point guards in the ACC, and that he shows up for big games. He’s the driving force behind the Heels turnaround this year. I think the title of this YouTube video sums it up:
- Roy Williams is the ACC Coach of the Year. Whether or not he actually wins the award, Roy has done an amazing job getting this year’s team to buy in to his team-first philosophy. It makes sense that after all the departures, dismissals and preseason hype that Roy would have to sell the players on the fact that Carolina basketball is bigger than any one player. Anyone who watched the debacle last year knows that Roy has actually changed his system to suit his personnel this time around. It’s worked and now he just needs them to stay focused for a few more weeks.
- Tradition rules on Senior Day. Roy kept with tradition and started three senior walk-ons, Justin Knox and Marshall even though the game was for the ACC title and even though it was against a hated rival. What some might have seen as a mistake wasn’t for several reasons. 1) How could Roy keep telling his players that the team comes first if he balked on this great Carolina tradition and 2) when Van Hatchell, D.J. Johnston and Daniel Bolick left the game, the Heels were leading 3-0.
- Tyler Zeller is still there, y’all. Because of their elevated play, Henson, Barnes and Marshall have been garnering — justifiably — more attention from opposing teams and the press recently. All Tyler Zeller does is go out and score double digit points and grab at least five or six rebounds per game. He had 14 and five against Duke and was solid — per ususal — in the post. Zeller’s consistency will be invaluable in the post-season.
Player of the Game: Kendall Marshall (15 pts, 11 asts, 2 rebs ) All that stylin’ and only two turnovers while playing 36 minutes against what is typically a very good defensive team.
Stat Stuffer (a.k.a. The John Henson Award): Henson (10 pts, 12 rebs, 1 blk, 1 stl)
Play of the Game: While he didn’t have a great overall game, Dexter Strickland’s dunk with about a minute remaining was the nail in the coffin. Really wish I could have heard the roar in person.