Let there be no doubt, as weird and wacky as this North Carolina Tar Heels college basketball season has been, an NCAA Tournament bid is in fact in North Carolina’s future after the Tar Heels upset No. 5 Duke, 74-66, in Chapel Hill Thursday night. The game was the make-up of a previously scheduled meeting between the schools that was postponed due to an ice storm on February 12. On Thursday, the Tar Heels left the Blue Devils on ice in the second half, holding Duke to just 29 points and overcoming a seven-point halftime deficit to knock off their arch-rivals and tie Duke for third place in the loss column of the ACC standings.
North Carolina, who was led by Leslie McDonald‘s 21 points and a strong game from Marcus Paige (13 points, four assists), improved to 19-7, 9-4 ACC with the win and have won eight games in a row since a loss at Virginia on January 20. Duke slipped to 21-6, 10-4, and the Blue Devils host Syracuse (25-1, 12-1) Saturday night. The path to the NCAA Tournament is now wide open for the suddenly wide-awake Tar Heels, who should win their next four games. That stretch includes contests against Wake Forest and Notre Dame at home, as well as road trips to Virginia Tech and North Carolina State.
The game at N.C. State might be a bit tricky due to the rivalry factor between the schools, but even if the Tar Heels go 3-1 in that stretch before the regular-season finale at Duke, that would put North Carolina at 12-5 in the conference and 22-8 overall. Even a blowout loss at Duke wouldn’t be enough to keep the Tar Heels out of the NCAA Tournament, no matter what head coach Roy Williams‘ club did in the subsequent ACC Tournament. Another important postseason factor of Thursday’s victory for North Carolina is that it puts the Tar Heels a full game up on Pittsburgh for fourth place. The top four teams in the ACC at the end of the regular season get a double-bye in the ACC Tournament. North Carolina also holds the tiebreaker over Pittsburgh.
Early in the season, despite wins over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky, it was fair to wonder about the Tar Heels’ postseason future, given losses to teams like UAB, Wake Forest and Miami. But North Carolina has emphatically stated its case for an NCAA Tournament bid since the Virginia loss, beating opponents by nearly 11 points per game in this eight-game winning streak. Other than conference-leading Virginia (10 wins in a row), the Tar Heels are the hottest team in the ACC and they are peaking at the right time.
And while there wasn’t much doubt the Tar Heels could score — they are 64th in the country at 76 PPG — it was the North Carolina defense that really stepped up against Duke. In one nearly 6-minute stretch, Duke didn’t score at all, and after Jabari Parker‘s (17 points) basket with 15:14 to play, the Blue Devils only hit five more field goals the entire game. For reference to show how great and effort that was by Carolina, Duke is 19th in the country in scoring at better than 81 PPG. North Carolina outscored Duke 34-15 in that final 15:14 of the game.
North Carolina is no mystery anymore. The Tar Heels are a very good basketball team that should finish with an excellent record, all things considered in the ACC, and will be a force when it comes time for both the ACC and NCAA tournaments.