The No. 14 North Carolina men’s basketball team, 23-7 on the season and 13-4 in ACC play, will take on No. 4 Duke, 23-7 overall and 12-5 in conference, Saturday night at 9 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and as usual in this Tobacco Road Rivalry, there’s a lot on the line.
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Ahead of the Duke showdown, Head Coach Roy Williams says he’s seen some mental and emotional fatigue out of his team lately, but the coaching staff is encouraging the players to get excited for postseason play.
“I think mentally you just, ‘Gosh, you have to take a deep breath.’ You realize now is when we really get to start having some fun. So we try to talk about that a little bit, but they’ve got to handle it,” Coach Williams says.
Coach Williams says more than any other team they face, the Tar Heels have to make guarding the three-point shot a priority against Duke, an historically elite perimeter shooting program.
“They shoot so many and have been so successful – just look at their percentages. We pay more attention to that and try to emphasize it. You hope that when they miss that you can get something going on the offensive end and capitalize on that,” Coach Williams says.
When asked the best way to go about defending Duke’s Jabari Parker, a hot favorite for national rookie of the year, Coach Williams implied it was a nearly impossible task.
“You hope he sprains his ankle going up the steps. That’s the best way. I don’t mean that in any derogatory way, but that’s one way to guard him if he’s sitting over on the bench. He’s got the complete game,” Coach Williams says.
All jokes aside, it was Carolina’s defensive intensity that made the difference in the second half against Duke in the Tar Heels’ 74-66 home win on Feb. 20.
Sophomore point guard Marcus Paige says Carolina will need to reach their maximum potential Saturday night and play a complete 40 minutes of high-level basketball.
“We might have a little bit more of a margin of error than maybe earlier in the season. But at this time of the year against a team like Duke in Cameron, the margin of error is not very big. We understand if we play the way we have the past couple games, that’s not going to get it done,” Paige says.
This year’s Tar Heel squad seemingly relishes the big-time games against elite national programs. Carolina’s game has shown brightest in the crucible of the national spotlight.
Senior Leslie McDonald says the toughness and cohesiveness of the team is put on display in the biggest games.
“We just have a mindset. If it’s a big-time team, we just come together closer. We have a mindset that we’re not going to back down. We’re going to give it our best shot and see if we can come out with the victory,” McDonald says.
With a victory Saturday, Carolina would assure itself of a three seed in next week’s ACC Tournament. A win coupled with a Syracuse loss in Tallahassee would mean UNC would snag the No. 2 seed next week. Few would have thought these scenarios possible just a few short weeks ago.
Carolina leads the all-time series with Duke 133-104 and is looking to complete a season sweep of the Blue Devils. That will be no easy task. Duke hasn’t lost back-to-back regular season games since Feb. 2009 and is a perfect 16-0 at home this season.