PHOTO (North Carolina Athletics): Tar Heels freshman Day’Ron Sharpe posted a double-double of 16 points, 10 rebounds.
By TOM SHANAHAN
Duke opened ACC play with three consecutive victories but has now dropped a straight trey to level off at .500 in league play following Saturday’s loss at Louisville, 70-65.
North Carolina began ACC competition losing two conference games but has rebounded to win five of six with Saturday’s victory over N.C. State, 86-76, that avenged a December loss to the Wolfpack in Raleigh.
The first of two Battle of the Blues is set for Feb. 6 at Duke, but it’s not a showdown for the ACC lead. Curiously, the Blue Devils (5-5, 3-3 ACC) and Tar Heels (10-5, 5-3) are sitting in a strange position, the middle of the pack in this this strangest of seasons – unranked and looking up at some unfamiliar league rivals.
The normal names are first-place and 13th-ranked Virginia (10-2, 6-0 ACC), second-place Florida State (9-2-5-1 ACC) and tied-for-third Louisville (10-3, 5-2 ACC). But it’s unusual to see Virginia Tech (11-3, 5-2 ACC), 16th ranked and tied for third, and fifth-place Pitt (8-3, 4-2 ACC) perched at such heights.
North Carolina is in sixth, while Duke has an additional upstart, Georgia Tech (7-4, 3-2 ACC), in seventh one spot above the Blue Devils’ eight-place tie with Syracuse (9-4, 3-3 ACC). N.C. State (6-5, 2-4 ACC) sits in 11th place also having had its progress stymied by a young roster trying to come together during the pandemic.
What to make of this COVID-19 pandemic altered season? As of now, North Carolina’s young team is closer to finding a rhythm than youthful lineups at Duke and N.C. State.
North Carolina’s 86 points to beat the Wolfpack was a season-high, the Tar Heels shot better than 50 percent for the first time at 54.4 and 38 bench points were not only the most for the season, the contribution overwhelmed N.C. State’s bench by margin of 26.
Five Tar Heels scored in double-figures for the first time against an ACC opponent this year. Big men Armando Bacot scored 17 and Day’Ron Sharpe 16 on the inside, while outside guard play contributed 15 from Caleb Love and 10 each from R.J. Davis and Anthony Harris.
Love and Davis are freshman still learning when they drive the lane in college there is a 6-11 big man to get around. Harris is a redshirt freshman playing only his third game this year after a knee injury ended his on Dec. 30, 2019. Kerwin Walton, who is a third true freshman guard, scored eight points but with two late baskets that helped hold off an N.C. State comeback bid.
“I told them (the freshmen) at one timeout, we’ve had 60 practices, we’ve had 14 games,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “At that time, they should no longer be freshmen. We’ve had a ton of games, a ton of practices. They’re still going to screw it up and make mistakes freshmen make. But I love our freshmen. That’s as good a class as I ever brought in in my life. Especially when you add Anthony Harris coming in off the bench going 4-for-5 and scoring 10 points in 10 minutes. Maybe I should play him 40 next time.”
Duke was in position to beat Louisville until sophomore Matthew Hurt fouled out with 1:50 to play defending guard Carlik Jones on a drive to the basket. Jones, a 6-foot-1 graduate transfer from Radford, hit both free throws for a 64-63 lead.
Hurt had 24 points at that point, but Duke was outscored 6-2 down the stretch. Jones scored Louisville’s final nine points to finish to also with 24 points – the decisive time on the court as it turned out.
What Duke lacked in those final moments was another go-to guy. Freshman Jalen Johnson’s regained Duke’s lead at 65-64 with a basket 20 seconds after Hurt left the game, but the Blue Devils were 0-for-4 the rest of the way. Joey Baker and Wendell Moore missed three-pointers and D.J. Steward missed two three-pointers.
“We had a chance. Come on, we had a chance to win,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We had a wide open three down by one. We just said ‘keep playing hard’ and run motion and get somewhere on your penetration where you get help from another defender.
“When I called a time out with just under three, we had a couple of possessions where we were moving the ball but not going anywhere. We were staying outside the three-point line. With this team, you have to penetrate a little but you are not going to penetrate far against them. Just need a little bit and get some kind of help. Then when you kick you might have an opening. I thought we got that even after Matt (Hurt) fouled out. We did not knock the shots down.”
Jones, a graduate transfer from Radford, a mid-major, beat mighty Duke? What could be stranger in this curious season?
North Carolina travels to Pitt for a 7 p.m. tipoff Tuesday at Petersen Events Center.
Duke is home against Georgia Tech for a 9 p.m. game Tuesday at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
N.C. State plays Wake Forest at 8 p.m. Wednesday at PNC Arena.
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