Act I: The Run-Up
For weeks, since UNC came from behind to slap down Duke by 8 in Chapel Hill, the rematch has loomed large. Once confident Duke fans, who more recently saw their purported top-five team humiliated by a not very good Wake Forest team last Wednesday, have grown nervous, with visions of the terrible smack talk they will endure at the gym, office and corner store if the Blue Devils somehow lose at Cameron.
Anything could happen. The Tar Heels are on a demi-tear, winners of twelve in a row, some precariously, but winning nonetheless. Duke is pulling a late season Jekyll and Hyde, executing brilliantly for long stretches and then suddenly disintegrating under pressure, as if they’ve pulled a collective hammy. And Coach Mike Krzyzewski went to the hospital Wednesday night, after experiencing what he described as “not lightheadedness, it was different” although he ended up checking out fine.
Saturday is a warm night, in Durham, after a swing of 30 degrees since Friday, and many in the crowd pressing outside Cameron have spent the day in the sun, their faces flushed with yard work, bike rides and walks around the block. The students have been drinking. Their muddy encampment is strewn with plastic vodka bottles, flattened cardboard that once held cans of Budweiser and Natural Light, and a odd bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, all empty, amidst high-end camping equipment and a makeshift solar panel feeding black power lines into one tent.
“It’s so disgusting,” says one young woman to another as they pass the muddy mess, walking away from their fellow students, some of who have painted their bodies from the gallon tins of Gliddon Interior Paint resting on a table beside the line. The line itself is cordoned off in sections, like the locks in the Panama Canal, slowly dripping students into the building, a far cry from the days before Duke’s national championships, when impatient and immoral upperclassman would hide in the woods, rush the line at the last minute, and mosh pit themselves inside. A DJ blasts Top 40 remixed with techno. Duke’s gonna win. They have to, don’t they?
Act II: Warm-Ups
This is the biggest ticket in town. Fans embrace and shake hands near the floor seats, as if simply to congratulate one another for being here. The television crews and other press aim their cameras at the crowd, sending a cone-shaped shotgun spray of screaming, jumping, and finger jabbing rippling through the stands. Tony Romo is here, for some reason, sitting next to Jahlil Okafor, the #1 rated high school prospect from Chicago who is enrolling at Duke next year, and who himself is sitting in front of the other recruits who will join him as part of the top ranked 2014 recruiting class.
At one end, the home team is wearing their throwback jerseys—early 90s font with 21st century tailoring—and warming up with a standard Duke drill, in which “offense” passes around the perimeter and “defense” jumps out at shooters and rotates from cover to cover. It’s notable that neither this nor any other of Duke’s drills that follow feature the commonplace act of passing the ball from the perimeter to a player posting up inside. The post-up and the entry pass, two staples of all basketball, remain a question mark for the Blue Devils after the shocking loss to Wake, when Jabari Parker, considered by many to be one of the best college forwards in the country and a top-3 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, failed to touch the ball from his residence inside the paint for lengthy stretches of time. Duke’s coaching staff looks grim, stiff and unsmiling in their suits, like undertakers.
At the other end of the court, Carolina looks loose and bouncy. They start their warmups with the most basic basketball drill you can possibly imagine: two lines of players simply passing the ball to one another. First chest passes, then bounce passes, then finally simply handoffs. It’s a fundamental drill that’s about being connected.
A little while later, both teams have devolved into an open shoot around. Duke’s players hoist up 3-pointer after 3-pointer, while a bunch of Carolina’s guys are working inside. James Michael McAdoo starts with his back to the basket and turns to nail jump hooks. Brice Johnson puts up short shots along the baseline. Then, with 13 minutes until game time, Carolina suddenly falls into formation and seems to break out dance moves, a little coordinated skip, shuffle, and step before they slide down on their bellies, all in unison, on the floor. Then they pop up smiling and they’re gone.
Act III: Get it to Parker
Senior night: the place goes nuts for Tyler Thornton, Josh Hairston and Andre Dawkins, who all start.
And start with a bang: it’s 17-4, Duke, after seven minutes. Strange things happen: Duke 3-point specialist Andre Dawkins drives repeatedly; UNC superstar Marcus Paige is covered for a stretch by Duke’s Rodney Hood, who’s at least eight inches taller than him; Parker unveils an up and under fake move he’s never done before.
Then Brice Johnson—six feet nine, 210 pounds, springy, long—checks in and starts rebounding and scoring. UNC turns up their defense. Duke struggles to score. McAdoo, guarded by the taller Marshall Plumlee, hits the jump hook he practiced earlier, then scores again, then draws a foul. Paige responds to a great move by Parker with his own crazy runner, high off the backboard, evoking the epic duel he won with T.J. Warren at NC State, as if the 6 foot guard is like a tennis player or major league slugger: the harder you hit them with it, the harder it comes back. And indeed, by the end of the half, Parker and Paige are trading magnificent baskets: a scoop reverse over three guys by Parker, a Paige fadeaway, and the half ends with Duke leading by 3.
Act IV: Get it to Parker
Another bang, for Duke: the guards are getting it dutifully to Parker, as if the coaching staff might be fining them for any possession he doesn’t touch the ball. And now the threes are falling, too. Five minutes in, Dawkins pokes away a steal and Quinn Cook ends up with the ball, streaking towards the basket with a bigger defender on his hip. At the last possible moment, Cook switches to his left hand, goes under the rim so he can’t be blocked, and scoops it in. Duke leads, 59-44.
Now Amile Jefferson gets into the action, with multiple offensive rebounds, a steal, a dunk, and a lot of manic clapping. Soon Duke is up by 19 points, and Carolina is in for a whupping. The crowd is delirious. Two of next years’ recruits—but not Okafor—cross the floor to join the student section in jubilation.
But wait. Something strange happens again with just under 8 minutes left in the game: Duke starts to slow things down. They’re keeping the ball on top instead of getting it to the wing and then baseline or inside. Parker’s not touching the ball anymore. Now Paige hits a three, and UNC turns up the defense. Carolina has not quit, and Duke fails to bury the dead. Now the Tar Heels are turning Duke over, drawing a shot clock violation, and here’s a four-point play for Paige! Carolina cuts it to ten, eight. Will Duke hold on?
Act V: The End
“Possessed,” says Tar Heels coach Roy Williams in the press conference, describing the play of Jabari Parker, who would close the game out by willing himself to the foul line, grabbing tough rebounds in traffic, and making sure his freshman—and likely only—year of college basketball includes beating Duke’s worst foe. “Whatever the hell it is,” continued Williams, referring to Coach K’s Feburary lament that Duke was missing something intangible after the Blue Devils’ loss at Carolina, “Jabari found it.”
Parker has scored 30 on 10-17 shooting, with 11 rebounds, an assist, a block and a steal, looking, for perhaps the first time, like the complete, unstoppable player that many believe he can be.
Yet Duke’s struggles under pressure for several minutes—as Carolina clawed its way back within striking range—remains a reminder that, at times, it seems like there are two Duke teams that live within the bodies of their players: a Duke team that explodes with devastating effects and a Duke team that can collapse, as it did against Wake Forest last week and North Carolina the last time around. “We’re young,” Coach K insists, “sometimes we go inward instead of talking more.”
That hasn’t been the case with Carolina, who did not stop fighting despite foul trouble, rare struggles on the boards, and a slew of first half turnovers. "I think we played really well with our heart and competed," says Williams, "but we didn’t do as good of a job with our brain as we did with our heart, but I think we have a competitive bunch of kids there, and I enjoy them.”
“Hopefully we’re learning,” says Coach K, “and can learn a little bit more this week in the ACC tournament so that for the NCAAs, we’re there.” Then he relaxes, jawing with the reporters and joking about the doctors who praised his healthy brain and heart, and swearing to all who'll listen that he does not dye his hair, while back in the locker room, his players are celebrating, just as Carolina's players celebrated their win a few weeks before. With Carolina as a 4 seed and Duke a 3 seed in next week's ACC tournament, both teams would have to make it to the final game to fight one another for the real grudge match. And beyond, somewhere beyond, lie the true blue bragging rights, for these two teams: not head-to-head, or how deep in the tournament they can go, but who gets the next national championship, when, and how.
Box score here
CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/DURHAM -