Barring some miraculous end-of-season turnarounds, Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State are all going to miss the NCAA Tournament. That hasn't happened since 1976.— Kyle Boone (@Kyle__Boone) February 7, 2021
There were no fans inside at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and neither team was ranked for the first time since 1960, but this season's first rendition of the Duke vs. North Carolina rivalry lived up the standards of the series anyway. In the end, the Tar Heels rode their best offensive performance of the season past Duke for an 91-87 victory that the Tar Heels sorely needed.
Duke (7-7, 5-5 ACC) enjoyed its highest scoring output of the year as well but languished defensively against a North Carolina team that was lethal both in the paint and in the perimeter just four days after scoring only 50 points in an ugly loss to Clemson. Freshman guard Caleb Love led the way for the Tar Heels (12-6, 7-4) with a career-high 25 points, giving UNC the explosive guard-play it had lacked for much of the season to this point.
Still, a Duke team that got just seven points from leading scorer Matthew Hurt, stayed on UNC's heels all the way until the final buzzer. Freshman forward Jalen Johnson drove to the basket with a chance to tie the game, but was whistled for a travel with eight seconds left. From there, North Carolina iced the game at the free-throw line.
While a pair of late free throws from Leaky Black secured the outcome, a surprising dose 3-point shooting propelled the Tar Heels for much of the game. UNC entered ranking among the worst in the ACC and nationally in most 3-point shooting metrics but made 10-of-15 from beyond the arc, with Love and Kerwin Walton combining to make 8-of-9 to counter Duke's 11-of-25 night from 3-point range.
It was important victory for the Tar Heels, who were in the "first four out" of Jerry Palm's Bracketology before picking up the victory.
UNC has to like that Love turned a corner
The book on North Carolina this season has been that the Tar Heels are a one-dimensional team loaded with interior threats but lacking a consistent perimeter presence. Much of that narrative has centered around the inconsistent play of Love, who entered the game averaging 10.3 points but shooting just 30.4% from the floor. But the No. 14 ranked player in the 247Sports Composite from the 2020 class seemed to be turning a corner the last couple of weeks, and he may have rounded it completely on Saturday. Love scored 15 of his 25 points in the second half and dished out seven assists for the game while outplaying counterpart DJ Steward. UNC won't get a scoring outburst like that from Love every game, but if it can get a confident, efficient version of him, it will go a long way toward helping this team make the NCAA Tournament.
Hurt's absence painul for Blue Devils
Hurt's seven points were a season-low and marked the first time this season he failed to reach double figures. Duke's top scorer got going with with a few makes in the second half after going scoreless in the first. But when he fouled out with more than four minutes left, the Blue Devils were left without their top offensive option in the game's most important moments. The 22 minutes Hurt played were his fewest of the season.
Even contributions for the Heels
Love will get the headlines from the game, and rightfully so. But it should be acknowledged that UNC's post players came through in a big way, too. After allowing 11 second-chance points in the first half, the Tar Heels tightened things up on the boards and allowed just four second-chance points in the second half. The better rebounding effort coincided with a big second half from Armando Bacot, who scored 12 of his 16 after halftime. Garrison Brooks added 12 and Day'Ron Sharpe contributed 11 to give the trio of bigs a total of 39 points on 16-of-26 shooting. Rather than fall in love with 3-pointers after making 6-of-9 in the first half, UNC set the tone for the second half by working the ball inside, which allowed the Tar Heels to continue earning quality looks from the perimeter.