Last week, two of college basketball’s powerhouses from Tobacco Road in North Carolina squared off in the first of their two matchups this season. Duke, ranked No. 20 entering the matchup, had recently fallen out of the Top 25 for the first time since the 2007-2008 season and came in desperately looking for a win to add to its resume. The Tar Heels from University of North Carolina, sitting fifth in the polls at the time of tipoff, were hoping to bolster their resume themselves, eyeing the ACC regular season championship as well as a potential No. 1 seed come the NCAA Tournament. After 40 minutes of play between the two sides, however, the fortunes of both teams would drastically change.
While many projected the veteran Tar Heels to come away victorious, a close first half kept the Blue Devils competing well into the second half. Forward Brice Johnson led the Tar Heels all night with 29 points and 19 rebounds, but his contribution would not be enough. Behind Grayson Allen’s 23 points, including a pair of clutch late free throws, Duke took a late lead that was upheld when freshman Derryck Thornton blocked a UNC shot attempt in the closing seconds. Duke got the ball off the blocked shot and ran out the remaining seconds, celebrating on the court in front of a stunned Dean Dome crowd.
Even more interesting than the back-and-forth game itself, the two teams’ fortunes this past weekend in their next game show a total reversal. Starting with the losing Tar Heels, the squad prepared for a showdown against the No. 11 Miami Hurricanes that would determine who would hold control of the ACC outright. The Tar Heels came out with a vengeance, using another strong effort from Johnson (16 points and 15 rebounds) to blow out the Hurricanes by 25, giving them a statement win over a top-ranked team. This would weaken the blow from the loss to the Blue Devils, as their ranking lowered to just seventh in the nation. Additionally, the Tar Heels still control their destiny in winning the ACC Regular Season title, which would give them a leg up in the ACC Tournament.
For the winning Blue Devils, what awaited them was another road matchup, this time against the No. 20 Louisville Cardinals. Despite their high ranking, the Cardinals do not have much to play for this season, as they have a self-imposed postseason ban due to NCAA violations. Pitino and the Cardinals did play the role of spoiler though, as a strong second half from the Cardinals took advantage of an undermanned Duke team to win 71-64. Guard Matt Jones and forward Amile Jefferson were sidelined for the game, and guard Grayson Allen fouled out with just under four minutes remaining after taking an offensive foul that left Duke depleted down the stretch. Allen drove to the basket and after passing the ball, he crashed into a Louisville defender and was called for an offensive foul. Allen protested the call, his fifth foul of the game, and subsequently picked up a technical that further pushed the momentum in Louisville’s favor.
While the Duke loss to Louisville hurt, their ranking seemed to take a bigger boost from their victory earlier in the week as they rose to No. 15 in the country. As these two teams get ready for another matchup in just over a week on March 5, it will be interesting to see where their fortunes twist and turn as this unpredictable NCAA basketball season comes to a close.