By R.L. Bynum
When Garrison Brooks turned an ankle in the first two minutes, it looked like it might be a painful senior-night game.
It was, but Brooks was one of several inflicting the pain on Duke with the shooting touch of a guard to go out in style. With four career 3-pointers before Saturday, he had two and scored 14 points in a surprisingly easy 91–73 victory over Duke at the Smith Center to get a regular-season sweep of the Blue Devils for the second time in three seasons.
Brooks couldn’t fight back the tears both as he left the Smith Center court for the final time and when he gave his senior-night speech. Could he put the emotion into words?
“Not really,” Brooks said. “Just coming off the court, thinking about me coming in here. It’s hard to put into words. Most of the time, I smile and cry and it looks weird. It’s just something I’ll cherish. You’ve got to be grateful for moments like these. You just have to cherish the moment with your team, because that’s what it came down to tonight.”
There weren’t many words between Brooks and Coach Roy Williams as they embraced when he came off the court. Just pure emotion.
“Just embracing each other,” Brooks said. “Just both so happy we came out and played the way that we did. We didn’t need to speak.”
Possibly delivering the death blow to the NCAA chances of the rival Blue Devils (11–11, 9–9 ACC) no doubt made it sweeter. With three consecutive losses, Duke will be the No. 10 seed at the ACC tournament and face Boston College on Tuesday. The Blue Devils’ worst previous loss this season was 15 points against Illinois.
The Tar Heels (16–9, 10-6), who got 18 points each from Caleb Love, Armando Bacot and Kerwin Walton, play at 9 p.m. Wednesday (ACC Network) as the No. 6 seed against the winner of Tuesday’s 7 p.m. Notre Dame-Wake Forest game. (See bracket below.)
The victory margin was the largest over Duke under Williams since 2012 at Durham and was the largest home margin since the Tar Heels beat No. 1 Duke in 1998. It was the fourth regular-season sweep of Duke under Williams, who also did it in 2007, 2009 and 2019.
The first big senior moment was in the opening minute when Walker Miller took a charge. Many fans worry about those first couple of senior-night minutes with reserves in the starting lineup. The reserves held their own and his teammates pointed to that play as being big.
“I think it’s just playing with a sense of urgency,” said Walton, who was 4 of 7 from 3-point range. “As long as we keep our energy levels up every single game, we’ll be fine. When Walker Miller set that charge, that kind of set the tone for us and gave us a huge energy boost and convinced everybody you can’t have just one guy hustling and making big plays. So, we all got to make sure we keep bringing it.”
Williams kissed the court that bears his name after the postgame senior ceremony to cap a 10–1 home season. He was happy with that but couldn’t help but complain about his team’s 20 turnovers.
“The fact that they pressed us and we went way too conservative against the press? I’ve always felt like I loved it when somebody pressed us, so we could attack,” Williams said. “And we did not attack. A lot of that [is that] even though they’ve got 24, 25 games and 83 practices, they are still freshmen. But we were way too conservative and turned it over way too many times against their press. But we did get the break going a little bit.”
Love dished has season-highs of seven assists in both wins over Duke and seems to save some terrific efforts for the Blue Devils. More nights like this, and on a consistent basis, and the Tar Heels could do a lot of damage in the postseason.
“We’re locked in,” Love said. “What started the game off this game was Walker’s charge. I think it really got us on our feet and we were excited from that moment on. He reset the tempo for us. So, just coming out, just making a winning plays and doing what we have to do to get each other going.”
Love’s 43 points in two regular-season games against Duke were the second-most by a Carolina freshman behind Joseph Forte’s 44 in 2000.
Bacot scored seven points as UNC jumped out to an 18-4 advantage and pushed the lead to 22 at 40–18 when Brooks banked in a straight-away jumper with 1:39 left in the first half.
“I’ll definitely say that’s the best we’ve played all year except maybe the second half against Florida State,” Bacot said. “When we all come to play and just go out there and play Carolina basketball, we can be a great team. It’s just, when is it gonna happen, and can we keep it going?”
The Tar Heels’ 16-point halftime lead was their biggest against Duke since leading by 24 in 2012 at Durham in an 88–70 victory.
The numbers told a dominating story. UNC shot 55.4% from the floor, assisting on 21 of its 31 field goals and making 8 of 18 3-point attempts and 21 of 26 free-throw attempts. Carolina blocked a season-high 11 shots, led by three from Walker Kessler.
“When Kerwin makes those threes and he makes the difficult threes, the whole team gets enthusiastic about it,” Williams said. “I think you need to have a great mix. We need to have guys who can score inside and we need to be able to have some guys who can make perimeter shots.”
Duke star Matthew Hurt didn’t score until a 3-pointer with 1:20 left in the first half and finished with 14. Mark Williams paced Duke with 18 points and DJ Steward added 16.
The repeated explanation from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski after the game was that UNC “knocked us back.”
“I thought the things we did in practice were really good but they didn’t come into fruition. They didn’t work out,” Krzyzewski said. “They really knocked us back and they really played at a high level of intensity and their defense was outstanding. They were excellent, and we were not very good, and that’s my responsibility. Those first eight to 10 minutes, they were at a really high level. And it just knocked us back and we couldn’t get good shots.”
UNC exploited mismatches inside with size that Duke couldn’t counter.
“I was not able to prepare them for the level of physicality, [the] intensity that North Carolina came out with, but the kids tried to get prepared,” Krzyzewski said. “And part of that is you can’t simulate what they do in our practice, because we don’t have those guys.”
Duke never made a game of it, trailing by 24 at one point. The Blue Devils cut it to 13 on a Wendell Moore jumper with 18:27 left. But after a Walton 3-pointer, Duke never got closer than 14 the rest of the way.
Now Duke likely needs to win five games in as many days next week in Greensboro to make the NCAA tournament.
Carolina 91, Duke 73
ACC tournament bracket
Pool photos by Robert Willett