PHOTO (Duke Athletics): Matthew Hurt (21) and teammates celebrate upsetting No. 7 Virginia.
By TOM SHANAHAN
It’s late February. That means Duke and North Carolina should be peaking for the final stretch leading to the post-season. Except this year it’s about playing their best basketball to earn a bid – not at a No. 1 seed.
Duke (10-8, 8-6 ACC) celebrated like it had won an ACC Tournament or NCAA regional when final seconds ticked off the clock in their 66-65 win over No. 7-ranked Virginia Saturday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
A couple hours earlier in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (14-7, 8-5 ACC) emptied its bench as the Tar Heels routed Louisville 99-54 like it was a first-round tournament mismatch. And earlier in the day N.C. State (10-9, 6-8 ACC) won its second straight game, defeating Wake Forest 80-62.
Duke, given up for dead two weeks ago, won its third straight game and is back in the picture for an NCAA bid if it can continue its strong play, especially with a deep run in the ACC Tournament. A tightly played Virginia-Duke game with stars and backups making big plays throughout the night was nothing new. Only the circumstances of unranked Duke needing to elevate its play to rise to Virginia’s level was different from a normal season.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called it, “an epic game. This was a great basketball tonight. Every possession was fought … seemed like every dribble at times.”
Sophomore Matthew Hurt continued his sizzling shooting, finishing with 22 points. In his last three games, he’s averaging 22.7 points and has made 24-of-32 (.750) from the field and 14-of-19 (.736) from three-point range.
“I think my teammates and my coaching staff did a great job of giving me confidence,” Hurt said after the game. “I wasn’t playing well – I think there was a couple-game stretch where I wasn’t playing well, but my coaching staff and my teammates, they believe in me and they were giving me confidence. I got extra work with some of the coaching staff. I just try to be aggressive and just try to win, especially.”
Hurt even drew Larry Bird comparisons from Virginia coach Tony Bennett and ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, although Bilas was quick to add he wasn’t calling Hurt, “Larry Bird,” the Hall-of-Famer. Bilas cited Hurt’s footwork on his step-back shots, Bennett mentioned the difficulty defending the 6-foot-10 Hurt’s shot mechanics. Bilas’ quick clarification shows he’s learned his lessons well from Krzyzewski that people are quick to misinterpret a comment.
“Hurt is a special shooter,” Bennett said. “He’s Larry Bird-like in terms of where he puts the ball behind his head. You think you’re there and you can’t quite get to it. At times we thought it was well guarded.”
North Carolina has now won six of its last eight games. The Tar Heels posted season highs in points, shooting percentage (60.9), assists (29) and field goals (42).
Five players scored in double figures and 14 played. Freshman Day’Ron Sharpe led the Tar Heels with 21 points and posted his fifth double-double with 11 rebounds. Freshman Kerwin Walton hit a season-high 19 points with five three-point field goals.
“The biggest thing for us is we shot the ball well which we haven’t done very often this year,” said Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. “We didn’t turn it over very much, 29 (assists) 11 (turnovers). Those are kind of things that we’ve been trying to emphasize more than anything.”
Duke has a quick turnaround, playing host to Syracuse Monday night at Cameron.
North Carolina scheduled Marquette for Wednesday at the Smith Center after the Tar Heels’ game against Boston College was postponed.
N.C. State plays its next game Wednesday at Virginia.
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