Marilyn Payne

UNC, Duke at best as Battle of Blues takes Brooklyn

Posted March 9
Updated March 10

— The first half of Thursday's ACC Tournament Quarterfinal day displayed the two remaining North Carolina teams at their very best.

Duke and North Carolina both beat teams they played just once and lost to during the regular season to stay alive in Brooklyn.

Now, after Roy Williams beat Miami 78-53 and Mike Krzyzewski's team topped Louisville 81-77, UNC and Duke meet for the third time in a season for the first time since 2011 in the tournament.

The teams split the regular season meetings as the home team won in both games. Friday, the rivals meet to decide a season series winner and the prize is a spot in Saturday's conference championship.

Tar Heels active defense makes difference

Isaiah Hicks dominated inside for North Carolina (27-6) against the Hurricanes (21-11) as the Heels' offense exploited Jim Larrañaga's zone defense. It was something the team couldn't quite master when it visited Coral Gables on Jan. 28 and lost the teams' only regular season meeting this year, 77-62.

Even with Hicks' second consecutive effective game, which the senior said was a product of simply "just focusing on the game," and "losing himself in the game," UNC's active and forceful defense made the biggest difference.

"Turnovers, you expect to run off of that," said Joel Berry, who scored 11 points Thursday. "But when we got the rebound, our bigs did a great job of sprinting down the court. We had a couple easy baskets by not having to go against a set defense."

Berry and Nate Britt each had three steals as part of the team's nine in the game. Miami turned the ball over 15 times and UNC scored 21 points off those extra possessions in the break.

North Carolina was also affective in eliminating easy drives to the basket, getting around ball screens to keep the Canes locked down much better than in the first meeting of the year. The defense would register at about a six or seven on a scale of one-to-10, according to Williams, but it was admittedly better in the second half than the first.

Miami went more than six minutes without scoring on 0-for-7 field goal shooting late in the first half and UNC grew its lead to 12 points, then the Canes finished the half on a 9-2 run.

"We knew we had to come out, that's exactly what they did at their place they made that run and we never got back into the game," Justin Jackson said, after scoring 12 points in the win. "We had to come out with more intensity and play harder than they did. We got that, we kept it going."

Blue Devils battle back from behind for win

Louisville (24-8) led by 12 points win a little more than 13 minutes to play. Quickly, Duke (25-8) began chipping away at that.

A Luke Kennard layup and Jayson Tatum three-point play made it a single-digit game. Tatum got a defensive rebound, which Grayson Allen scored after, and a steal on the Blue Devils' next couple trips down the floor to pull the team within four.

When Louisville answered with a bucket and David Levitch got too aggressive on defense against Allen, the Barclays Center crowd got the loudest it'd been all game. Rick Pitino was warned to stay in the coaches box and the Blue Devils maintained possession after the Cards foul.

"Energy produces energy. I think we already had energy, and people saw it," Krzyzewski said. "And the people who don't want us to win, they responded."

But even that seemed to backfire for Louisville. Allen got fouled shooting behind the arc, then pulled his team within three points at the charity stripe. Kennard rebounded a miss on the defensive end then made one of his shots, which Krzyzewski calls a "dagger," to tie the game.

"The way that we fought, how tough we were was incredible. It was a lot of fun, momentum went our way," Kennard said. "I've said it a lot: we're getting better, that's what it's all about."

"It was huge, it was that swing of emotion, that swing of confidence," Amile Jefferson said. "Having to crawl our way back, it's one of those big time wins. It's a win that instantly becomes a classic in our history because we fought back. We could've just let the game go, but for us to get that win was great."

Allen followed up his scoreless performance in Wednesday's game with 18 points. "Grayson was being Grayson," Kennard said, it's something Duke needs every game and a performance that doesn't reflect the pain that the junior guard said he's dealing with overcoming after Duke's game against Clemson.

If the Blue Devils can compete at the same healthy-looking level despite their lack of rest Friday, the semifinal should be yet another classic.

"The bottom line is we're going to play two Final Four caliber teams in a row in 24 hours," Krzyzewski said. "Louisville and North Carolina are Final Four caliber teams. We just played (UNC), had a great game.

"If we're fresh enough, I think it will be a great game."

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